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I’m a Square Peg

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs

Let me be honest here. I do believe that I can change the world. There I have said it. I don’t see this bold statement as egotistical, the belief comes from a deeper place than that. It is something I have felt for many years. It predates my major change of life several years ago. I felt it when I imagined I could do it from inside the machine. It was only being spat out that provided the circumstances and the experience for the basis of this work. Now many years down the line, after several slow steps along the way to an understanding, I find myself at a place where I know what I need to do.

Many of you will know that this exploration of Mindful Photography I have been living this past five years is more than just a means of self expression, it has also been the practice that has supported my positive acceptance of the new world that has become my life post acute health crisis. It is this knowing that forms the basis of how I would like to change the world.

Change the world

You may be familiar with the Mindful Photography work I have been doing with Brain Injury patients over the last 7 years. Most recently this has included two 8 week courses with one group that culminated in the Course “Who Am I Now“.

This latter course specifically supports people who have experienced significant loss or great change to understand what they are living through and move towards a positive acceptance of who they are after this momentous life event. The courses have been particularly well received by patients and staff and we have three more scheduled.

During the last course we were also visited by staff from the Welsh Burns Unit, who see how the course could benefit their patients. They are currently considering how they could fund the work.

Delivering this course made me realise that this is the work I was born to do. I have the experience of living through great loss, finding the adjustment to the new version of myself to be close to impossible, and then finding a way that I could combine Mindfulness and Photography to live through, process and move towards a positive new life.

That I can now share methods to do this with others brings me great joy and significantly adds to my own wellbeing. Not only is the work to continue to deliver further courses, it has finally given shape to my desires to write a Mindful Photography book; the book I have had partly written for 4 drafts and 3 years now has a clear purpose and audience.

The work will also form the basis of a collaborative Photography Project with others who are working though the same process after their own significant loss.

How do I know I can change the world? I already have. Don’t just take my word for it, here’s feedback from a student on my last course.

“The course has helped me to begin to accept what has happened – it’s not bad, but a challenge. To open up to others, my thoughts and feelings through the photographs I have created.

I have learnt that I am not alone. I am in a group where I feel safe and secure. That I can relax, breathe and create beautiful, meaningful photographs. That I find peace and mindfulness in the little things.”

NB. The photo is from one of my favourite cafés in Swansea called Square Peg! It’s where I first saw the Steve Job’s quote at the top of the page.  They serve great tea.

 

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Who Am I Now? – Week 8

Last Friday was a momentous day for our group. The last session of “Who Am I Now?”, the last one of 16 weeks together. For this course was the follow up the “Developing Mindfulness through Photography” Course. Two 8 week courses where much has been learnt, shared and experienced.

For our last week, in true teacher style, I led the group through a review of everything that we had covered and that they have learnt (hopefully!). This is worth sharing for those of you who may be curious.

This is what we cover in the “Who Am I Now” Course which focuses on using mindfulness and photography to explore who we are and how we are living after major change in our life.

  • Becoming Present – Mindfulness and Mindful Photography
  • Experiencing your thoughts and feelings – Creating photographs that express how we are
  • How is it now? – Exploring change and loss
  • Who are you now? – Learning to love and accept who you are now

We explore these areas through a variety of shared photos, thoughts, quotes, meditations and mindful photography practices. All of these lead the students to hopefully learn the following.

  • How to create photos of invisible things
  • Abstract photography
  • Using visual metaphors and symbols
  • Creating photos intuitively
  • How to face the fear (that accompanies the significant loss and change in life)
  • Loving yourself now (moving towards accepting how life is now )

The Final Week

After our review of the course I set the group a challenge. This particular mindful photography practice was one that was used by the innovative photographer Minor White. He favoured using this particular practice as a beginning for his students and sent them out with only this instruction (below) and their cameras. It is quite a challenging task, requiring self awareness and honesty. Ideal for the finishing group I felt, but challenging for Mr White’s new students!

Photographing your essence

“Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel a resonance, a sense of recognition. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Do not try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter. Continue photographing until you feel the process is complete”

Minor White

Why not try it out for yourself? In the meantime here are the photos (below) from our group, minus the honest explanations that were shared in the room.

This has been a fantastic experience and I feel honoured to have shared it with the group. I would like to leave you with the thoughts of one of the students when asked to share something about how the course had helped and explain what had been learnt.

“The course has helped me to begin to accept what has happened – it’s not bad, but a challenge. To open up to others, my thoughts and feelings through the photographs I have created.

I have learnt that I am not alone. I am in a group where I feel safe and secure. That I can relax, breathe and create beautiful, meaningful photographs. That I find peace and mindfulness in the little things.”

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Hafal Workshop in North Wales

On Monday I was invited to Snowdonia to deliver a mindful photography workshop for people who receive support from Hafal. The session was part of a whole afternoon that also included creative writing and was organised and funded by Literature Wales.

We were fortunate to have the use of Yr Ysgwrn a fabulously restored cultural and historical centre in Trawsfynydd, which is owned by the Snowdonia National Park. This is a beautiful part of the county and we were also blessed with a gorgeous day.

As this was my first session with the group this was very much an introductory session. I explained what mindfulness is and led the group through a short guided meditation. I then explained how photography could be used to develop mindfulness and invited the group to create photographs of colour in a beautiful surroundings.

After the session we wrestled with some technical challenges to save everyone’s favourite photos, but with tenacity we succeeded – and here they are!

Yr Ysgwrn Centre

 

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Who Am I Now – Week 7

Week 7, the penultimate week was all about love. Ahh! And all you need is love, don’t you? This week was the cure for the two previous weeks, which focused on Fear. Love is the antidote to fear, both holistically and chemically. Love produces oxytocin which is the natural antidote to the cortisol produced when we are fearful. See, all you do need is love!

Our first week on love centred upon the greatest love, love for oneself. If we can be compassionate for ourselves, fully accept and love ourselves then we have more space and capacity to love and be compassionate for others.

However this is not always easy. In the midst of our struggles with our own difficulty, swamped by fears, we may find it difficult to access love for ourselves. As a stepping stone to this the students spent a week creating photos of things in their lives that they were grateful for. The practice of gratitude supports the softening towards acceptance of our life as it is. If you would like to read more about this try this.

As a practice in reflecting what we love about ourselves the creation of self portraits is a challenging but great start. We looked at how photographers have represented themselves in photos. From the earliest of film days through Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander to the modern take of creating selfies. All that was left was to create some of our own. Here are some of our favourites.

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 6

This week we built upon our discussions about loss and change. Specifically we focused on fear and how this emotion causes  physiological changes in our bodies. If you would like to read all about this here’s a link to my post on the topic.

One of the key features of fear is that it causes the body to release a cocktail of chemicals that get us ready to fight or flight. The problem with our modern world is that some of the stressful events that cause this physiological change do not require us to run away or fight, but instead to respond skillfully, instead of in our normal habitual way.

The challenge is that we are often unable to access the logic and reason we require – our limbic system (the oldest part of our brain) has kind of hijacked our mind to enable the fight/flight action without interference. So the key question is how can we keep calm and develop the ability for clear thinking in a crisis?

What we need to do is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear”. To remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. To remember our strengths. Then we can find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? (More on this next week)

There are many practices that develop this. One that I shared this week that the students started is a Gratitude Practice. In our mindful photography version the students created photos of things, ideas or feelings for which they were grateful. They shared their favourite ones with the group and they’re below. They are also going to continue this for the week.

If you would like to read about the science behind a Gratitude Practice try this

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 5

This week began the final half of the course with an exploration of how we are living now.

Often we live attached to an image of ourselves from a few years earlier. Most of us like to imagine that we are younger than we are and not admit that we are getting older. This gentle but relentless change is a challenge to us all.

However, if we experience a major change that includes a significant loss then the adjustment to this life event is even more challenging. All of the students on the course have experienced a major loss. Brain trauma happens immediately and life is unlikely to ever be the same again.

Any major loss in our life: health, relationship, loved one, job, career leads to grief, and a cycle of adjustment we know as the Grief Cycle. We may well know that the stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. We may also know that they are not linear. However it is unlikely that we will find it easy to live.

Photography provides a means by which we can create photos that illustrate how we feel. It also can be used on an ongoing basis as part of an exploration of how we are experiencing our life. Next week we will be looking at one of the engines of our struggles to adjust to great loss: fear.

After a long discussion about change, loss and grief, an opportunity to reflect how this made us feel was required. The Mindful Photography Practice we all did invited the visual contemplation of a tree, and the creation of photos that illustrated how we felt. Everyone took their time and then shared their favourite photos, and why they had chosen them with the group.

Here they are.

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 4

This week was all about the application of knowledge and skills learnt in the first 3 weeks and was an opportunity to get personal.

We were all invited to consider a barrier in our life, particularly one that was current. These barriers would generally be things that we are not comfortable with and would like to be different, but quite often the first thing we need to do is accept how it is now. This is particularly challenging when we would prefer the world to be different to how it is.

Every photo below was created in less than an hour in response to this invitation. They are personal to each photographer and represent the emotions caused by the barrier or the barrier itself. Every student opened themselves to this process and shared with the rest of the group what the barrier was and what the photo represented. This is powerful and important work. I congratulate you all on your bravery and honesty.

Who Am I Now Course – Week 3

This week I took the students understanding of abstract photography a step further and expanded their appreciation of using photographs to illustrate how they feel.

After a general introduction that discussed the use of elements of visual design (space, form, colour, line, pattern, texture and space) to influence how a photo makes the viewer feel. I illustrated how our cultural interpretations evoke particular ideas and feelings, for example the colour red represents danger, fire, war, power etc.

In addition to this we discussed how an element of visual design can produce a personal resonance, evoking specific memories particular to the photographer. This relationship between the view/scene and the photographer’s emotional experience when viewing the scene is fundamental to the production of great photography.

Stieglitz and White

To explore this territory we visited the work of Alfred Stieglitz (Equivalents) and Minor White, who was heavily influenced by Stieglitz’s work and produced a famous response – Equivalence: The Perennial Trend.

Both photographers explored this territory. Stieglitz was the first to demonstrate how other objects could represent human emotions with his photographs of clouds. This was his response to the critic Waldo Frank who maintained that his portrait photographs were only great because of the power of the subjects.

Minor White took this further, into the realm of the personal response to a scene, particularly one in nature. He liked to photograph scenes and objects that he felt a deep resonance with.

After examples and discussion and the students were encouraged to produce their own ‘Equivalents’, photos that represented how they felt and a particular time and place. They were then asked to select one to share and discuss with the group, explaining what the photo meant to them and how it made them feel. Here they are.

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Who Am I Now Course – Week 2

Week 2 starts the process of considering how we can represent our thoughts and feelings through photography. The beginning of this appreciation begins with a bit of creative fun; the creation of abstract photographs.

This week we considered what Abstract Photography is and I shared some ideas for their creation. We talked a little about metaphor and symbolism as many of the students are already experimenting with this. And we also looked at the role of the seven elements of visual design (shape, form, line, colour, pattern, texture and space) and the desire to move beyond the labelling of what we can see.

“In order to see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.” Claude Monet

I shared two key tips and here they are:

  1. Rotate your photos. Looking up them upside down dissolves your ability name the objects and increases your ability to see the elements of visual design.
  2. Don’t delete your photos whilst you are creating abstract photos. When you go out with the intention of creating abstract photos take your time. Create one photo and review it. Look at it upside down. Notice your thoughts, particularly your judging mind. If you like the photo ask yourself what it is that you like. If you don’t like it ask yourself why, investigate those thoughts and feelings. Consider each photo as a signpost for your way forward. Deleting whilst you are creating implies a snap judgement and you are in new lands, your judgements may change. Be open to possibility and don’t delete until much later. Maybe even after you’ve downloaded and waited a few days.

Our intrepid photographers created 2 photos each to share with everyone else and here they are. As you look at them ask yourself how they make you feel.

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Mindful Photography Course – Week 8

This was the final week of our 8 week development of mindfulness through photography, and along the way create some fabulous photos. This week we covered two more mindful attitudes: Acceptance and Non-Striving, shot a little video of the some of the students sharing their experiences on the course and had some lovely cake (provided by the students)!

Just so you don’t miss it, I’m going to start with the video which shares some honest and enlightening tales of what was experienced on my Mindful Photography Course. Here it is

 

Acceptance

Mindfulness encourages us to see things as they actually are in the present moment. As the present moment plays out, we practice noticing our feelings, our physical sensations and the thoughts that flit across our mind.  It may well be that we don’t actually like what we are experiencing. We may try to avoid, distract or just deny the experience.

Acceptance is the quality that allows us to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages us 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 our lives.

When we experience major change or loss in our lives we often find that accepting how things are now beyond difficult. The loss we are trying to understand may have left us quite different physically, mentally and emotionally, in comparison to how we were before it happened. We may be attached to an idea of who we are that reflects how we were, rather than how we are now.

Processing this major change may take us a long time and there is much difficulty to work through. The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle that was developed to illustrate our adjustment to the death of a loved one is also applicable to any other major change or loss in our life. We have to live through the Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression before reaching Acceptance. And whilst these are often described in linear fashion they are not always lived so clearly. We may move between the various stages, hopefully slowly moving towards acceptance.

Carl Rogers (psychologist) wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

As applied to photography

Photography can help us live through these stages, creating photos that illustrate how we feel, when we are feeling it. Last week I set the students homework to go out with their cameras when they were experiencing great emotion and create some photos. Not to look for particular scenes, but to simply walk and create what called out to be photographed.

Each student then shared their favourite photo and we reflected upon how it made us feel. Here they are.

Non Striving

Non striving is non doing and was the second Mindful Attitude we looked at. Meditation can be described as a non doing activity – if that is not a contradiction. We sit and we be. We are present and we are ourselves. What we experience we pay attention to. We may choose to return to the breath when we notice thoughts flit across our minds. We are non goal orientated.

Now this is all fine and dandy in theory. However, we live in a ‘doing’ culture. We have grown and developed in a society that values action, activity and succeeding. We need to feel that we are doing stuff and that we are ok. So when we begin to meditate we do see it as an activity, something to do. We must do our meditation. We must do certain things to ensure that we are doing the meditation correctly. We choose a certain place, time of day, length of sitting, structure to follow and so on. Then we try to get this all ‘right’.

Often then, especially as we begin meditating, we may feel discouraged. Our mind is incessantly busy. We don’t experience any quiet. Or we may choose to notice experiences that reinforce our belief that we are doing this meditation thing right. We may experience feelings, colours, great peace and any of these confirm our confident belief that we have got this meditation thing cracked. We are either doing it right or wrong! Either way we are doing it.

So how do we move from doing meditation and mindfulness to being and non striving? There is a blurred division between doing and being. In meditation we set out to meditate, we are doing the activity. But it is in our approach to being present with our experience, of non striving, of being non goal orientated that we move to being in the moment. We achieve this by paying attention, that is all. We pay attention to our present experience, we come into the present moment and we stay with our anchor – the breath or seeing (mindful photography) – we become what we already are, a human being.

As applied to Photography

Non striving as a concept applied to photography is a fine aspiration. As photographers we are very attuned to the processes we must follow to create a great photo. Our attention to technical and compositional choices is fundamental to the creation of a good photograph. But a great photograph requires something of us, something of our soul, something of who we are. To create memorable photographs we must marry the technical and compositional with our intuitive heart. How do we do this? By being in the moment.

That fine dividing line between doing and being is present at the moment of visual creation. The decisive moment that we choose to press the shutter is a moment that we are not holding tightly to our doing. We know, on a practiced and confident level, that we have made the right technical choices. Our practice and training has equipped us with the skills to flow into creative compositional choices of the visual elements before us. All of this is not at the front of our mind as we simply rest in the moment of creating a photograph. We allow the photo to come into being. This being in the moment encourages an instinctive connection with our feelings, our very essence becomes part of our created photo. To photograph is to be, wholly and magnificently, in the moment.

The students were given the challenge and practice of creating just one photo. BUT (and yes it is a big but) they had to walk and not look for that photo. To create a photo without looking for a photo is not only very zen, it’s a fabulous practice and one that can be spread out over a day.

The striving part of our mind wants to make sure that the one photo is a ‘good’ photo. We may have preconceived ideas about where to walk and what we will see. The practice is to notice these thoughts and to return to what can be seen. To simply walk and trust that an opportunity will manifest. Here are their photos.

 

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Mindful Photography Course – Week 7

The home stretch! This penultimate session carried on with our consideration and development of mindful attitudes through photography and we started by reviewing the photos created by the students for their homework. After that we looked the mindful attitude of Beginner’s Mind, before setting more homework around Acceptance.

Homework – Rightness and Wrongness

Last week I finished by setting the students a mindful photography practice for homework. The goal of the practice was to notice our habit of judging our life experience. We are constantly evaluating how the world is treating us, and this usually manifests as a judgement that we either like or dislike what is happening.

From this habit we then try to repeat the things we like and avoid or deny the things we dislike. All perfectly reasonable you might think, that is how life is, but not always helpful when we can’t control what is happening and we are looking to reduce the stress in our life.

There is a middle way. A noticing that we have made a judgement, taking a few breaths and being with how it is. Feeling those emotions playing out in our body. Noticing the thoughts around avoidance creeping in. And breathe! Slowly the feelings and thoughts will soften and then dissolve.

It is a lifetime’s practice, but how can we work with this habit photographically? We make the same judgement about every photo we create. We either like them or dislike them. What if we were to create photos that were good or right and another set of the same scene that were bad or wrong?

Can we look at the different photos of each subject, notice how they make us feel and consider whether sometimes the wrong photos are more interesting than the right ones. What you need is some photos to compare. Below you will find the pair that each student chose to share.

Beginner’s Mind

The cultivation of a beginner’s mind is an intention. We resolve to receive each moment as if it was the first time we experienced it. (Which it is!) We imagine that the sensory information we are experiencing is fresh and new to us. We really notice what it is that we can see, feel, smell, touch and hear.

When we are sat meditating the object of this intention is often the breath. To sit and experience the breath as if for the first time is to alert our senses to where and how we feel the breath in our body. Its cool entry at our nose. The gentle rise and fall of our stomach. The subtle expansion of our chest. The sharpening of our senses brings us into the experience and roots us in the present moment. To expand this practice into other areas of our day and life supports our intention to be mindful.

The trick is taking this sensory experience and developing it in situations and environments that are familiar. This is a re-tuning of our senses. A conscious decision to notice. We may choose one particular sense to work with or simply remain open to what our senses reveal.

The very essence of this practice brings us into the moment, encouraging our presence within our current experience. In photography this can be explored as part of a mindful photography practice. Our intention within the practice is to notice the visual experience as if for the first time. And that is what we did!

Each student was encouraged to return to a location they had used before and to imagine that it was the first time that they had been there. Then to create some photos that represented that experience. Below you will see each student’s favourite photo from their mindful photography practice.

Homework – Acceptance

I finished by introducing the mindful attitude of Acceptance and then set the students homework around this challenging area. To find out how they got on call back next week!

 

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Mindful Photography Course – Week 6

Week 6 took us in to new territory! After a recap of what we had covered to date (Seeing and composing photographs) We started a new topic: Mindful Attitudes.

In 1990 when Jon Kabat-Zinn published his book Full Catastrophe Living (the backbone of the MBSR Course) he included 7 attitudes that help to underpin a mindful attitude to life. They were Non Judging, Beginner’s Mind, Patience, Acceptance, Trust, Non Striving and Letting Go. In later additions of the book he added more: Gratitude and Generosity.

I believe that there is one more essential attitude: intention

Intention

Intention is the commitment to turn up for yourself. Your intention is what sets you on the mindful path to developing your self awareness to find more ease, freedom, and peace. Intention is the doorway to those other mindful attitudes: non judging, patience, beginner’s mind, acceptance, non striving, letting go, trust, gratitude and generosity.

Making mindfulness an intention is a beginning. Intentions are found in the present, so just by making one, you have already accomplished what you set out to do. An intention cannot fail, because it happens right now. With an intention, there is no required result—we are simply connecting to our chosen course. “I’m just going to practice, and see what happens.” Therefore we invite curiosity, a sense of experimentation: “Well, this is interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen now?” Intention has strength, as its rooted in reality, but also suppleness—holding to an intention doesn’t mean our actions can’t change, based on what we discover.

Ed Halliwell Mindful.org

The Practice

I then set the group a practice. The aim of the Mindful Photography Practice was to understand the difference between a goal and an intention.

An intention happens in the present. A goal will be achieved (or not) some time in the future. The intention of the practice, was to do the practice. Easy, huh? The goal was to produce five photos that illustrated all four compositional themes: Balance, Subject and Background, Point of View and Simplicity.

My last words were is does not matter if you do not achieve the goal. Remain with the practice.

The photos

Upon return each student chose two photos to share. They may have achieved the goal or not. The only criteria for choice was that they like them. Here they are.