The captain of my soul

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul”

These are the last two lines from the poem ‘Invictus’ by the English poet William Ernest Henley. He was inspired to create the poem by his own life events.

In 1875 one of Henley’s legs required amputation due to complications arising from tuberculosis. Immediately after the amputation he was told that his other leg would require a similar procedure. He chose instead to enlist the services of the eminent surgeon Joseph Lister, who was able to save Henley’s remaining leg after multiple surgical interventions on the foot.

The phrase ‘Captain of my Soul’ and Henley’s inspiration for writing the poem have been on my mind since Thursday. That night, myself and a friend (Rob) visited the Peg Talks at a local cafe and the inspirational speakers there spurred a conversation about life events and choices. I think it was Rob who suggested the phrase’ ‘Captain of my soul’ to describe what I was trying to explain.

Two of the speakers at the Peg Talks had focused upon the life choices they had made that had then led to life opportunities and the realisation of their dreams. I was trying to explain to Rob how I felt that I was finally making choices that resonated with my true path in life. My particular choice that mirrored Henley’s experience is one I have made recently about my health.

A recent diagnosis of my breathing condition has presented two choices. One; follow the prescribed medical solution, a cocktail of serious drugs with side effects, likely further medical interventions and a possible successful reduction of inflammation. The drug regime would be for a year, would suppress my immune system which could also have other potential health repercussions.

Two; put choice one on hold and dedicate a year to making healthier choices, exploring alternate health solutions that are relevant for my now diagnosed condition and make other life choices that feel honest, authentic, and attentive.

Option two it is then.

Using one focal length

Mindful photography is about being present with what you see. It is also about adapting to the situation. I often use a simple set up for my practice; usually a single focal length lens (a 40mm) on my DSLR. This is my go to, walkabout lens.

I choose to use this lens because the focal length is very similar to how we see (which is around 43mm, albeit with a greater width and a mind that looks to zoom in). Using one lens regularly, particularly one that is similar to how we see improves our seeing and how best to create photos that reflect what we see. Using this one lens I become attuned to the camera’s way of seeing. I begin to think in terms of how the camera will record the scene.

Over time this photographic thinking, which includes colour rendition, the framing, composition and the dynamic range of the light, becomes learnt and familiar. With continued practice, reviewing the outcomes and adjusting my technical choices, I begin to know what to expect from my camera. Through this doorway lies the possibility of reacting more instinctively to the scene, allowing my subconscious to make more of the technical and compositional choices. In this moment I let go of trying (to take a great photo) and allow the creation to occur. Through this process the possibility that there may be something of me, and the way I feel about the world, in the photo becomes more likely.

When I first tried shooting a whole year using just one lens I did it for reasons of artistic impression. Using just one focal length creates a unifying similarity to your photos. This can be beneficial if the photos you are creating are part of an ongoing project. It is ideal for those 365 projects that comprise of one photo a day. Then along the way you will also reap the benefits of instinctive creation and greater connection between what you are seeing and how you feel about the the world you are experiencing.

The photos that accompany this post illustrate my musings. A visited Caswell Bay, the Redcliff end, with Taylor to take him surfing. However, I decided to take my camera with the 40mm lens on, rather than the big zoom, and not shoot surfing photos. Instead I would see what was there and respond to my experience. I chose a black and white edit because of the high contrast of the scene.

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Beginning the Day

Recently I have considered the impetus created by our imaginative idea that we have now started a New Year. I say imaginative, because it is our ability to imagine that something exists – to give it structure, definition, and rules for its existence – that has produced the idea that we are in a New Year. Every other animal on the planet just carries on like it is any other moment.

I still feel very close to this concept. Maybe it is because I have been considering the Twelve Photos theme (Beginning) and following a mindful morning photography experience to start the day. So I thought I would share the activity to provide you with an opportunity to begin the day in a similar manner.

A Mindful Photography Practice

First up: you have to have a camera close to hand when you awake in the morning. Ideally you then lie there, camera in hand, slowly coming to, eyes open, paying attention to what you notice. Each time something attracts your eye you take a photo. Repeat for 5 photos. No more, no less, no deleting.

I have to admit that I wasn’t completely prepared, camera was downstairs, head was thick, stomach was calling. I first grabbed my little compact camera, made a cuppa and some toast and retired back to bed. After the refreshment had done its work I commenced the activity, as described above.

The photo above is the last one I created, contemplating the beauty of the morning. The full set is below. I enjoyed the experience, followed it with a 20 minute meditation and felt grounded and ready for the day. I commend it to you! Perhaps you could share one of your photos in our Facebook group?

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Feel the Fear

Over the last six months I have written several posts that have explored the theme of fear. Each time my motivation for looking at this area was spurred by personal experience, in particular living through a very difficult health period. It is difficult enough to experience the challenging events in our life, but then to also consider that our behaviours that surround the event may be underpinned by fear is maybe a challenge too far. But it is in this arena that there is space for the greatest personal understanding and growth.

One of the thoughts I was often drawn to was that the fear we experience is a fantastic opportunity. Does this sound ridiculous? After all we do not want to feel fearful, do we? But how would it we be if we explored what was underneath the fear? What would it reveal? How would that enrich our life experience?

Yesterday, I had a consultation with a friend who is a homeopath. Rita is an old friend of many years, who I find it very easy to talk to. In the course of a few consultations, over the last few months, we have been exploring my current health challenges and the path that has led me to this point.

Our discussion yesterday started with the major changes that have manifested in my life in the last month: a diagnosis for my breathing condition and the decision for Beci and I to separate. Both of these changes have provided the ground for some big decisions and it is clear that I am at a particular crossroads in my life. After some discussion around how I felt about these changes, including the fears I had regarding the potential decisions that are impending, we returned to discussing my life choices that had led to the beginnings of my health condition, some 10 years ago.

I talked about the drive and desire to succeed that underpinned my attitude and commitment to my work and my running. At the time I was working at Swansea College as a senior manager and had secured a new management position in a re-organised college led by the new Principal. I was very keen to be successful and to be seen to be ambitious. At the same time I had committed to a thorough, and slightly obsessive, training schedule to run in marathons and other long distance races.

This driven and success orientated attitude to life was ‘normal’ consequence of the evolving culture of the time. You could say that I was simply immersed in the Zeitgeist. Alternatively, you might ask, (as Rita did) what was really fueling this behaviour? The answer came instinctively: fear. My desire to be brilliant at my new job, to be seen to be a committed and influential manager was fired by a fear of not being good enough, of having to prove that I was a talented and successful senior college manager.

Similarly, my commitment to a campaign of long distance races with incremental time and distance improvements was underpinned by exactly the same fears. I needed to be seen (by myself and others) as being good, and getting better at long distance running. There was also more to it; an element of challenging the effects of ageing was certainly present.

Mid-life often means we no longer play team sport and we may become seduced by the idea that keeping fit can be achieved through a programme of distance running. And this is of course true. But, there is also more going on. By striving to keep fit we are also trying to keep ageing at bay: or perhaps we could say that we are fearful of getting old and ultimately, dying.

Fear as the practice

The realisation that fear drove my behaviour over 10 years ago is not that much of a surprise, but it is only now that I see that it is an ongoing feature of life. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing in the background, like the hum of a radio, is fear. Understanding what each fear is, that is directing our behaviour, is the opportunity, the practice.

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected practices: Present moment awareness and Training the mind

1) Present moment awareness

Present moment awareness is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into fear. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, we can listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take us?

Now we need to train the mind to be able to come totally into the present moment and to connect.

2) Training the mind

Our intention 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“. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara Brach says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the fear ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart. Breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

 

Honesty

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”  Pema Chodron

Looking at ourselves ‘honestly and gently’ is perhaps the most courageous act of our life. Gentle honesty requires a non judgmental attentive mind set where we remain present with our thoughts and feelings as they ebb and flow. We meditate to train the mind in this mindful practice and then life happens.

As we start a new year there is an opportunity and inclination to consider how we are living and how we feel about that living. These are the fundamental questions that Pema refers to. Fundamental, as they go to the root of our day to day living and experiences.

If you have read this blog over the last six months or so you will know that 2015 was a particularly challenging year. I often referred to these challenges without going into personal detail where I felt they might compromise other people’s feelings. This is an intention I intend to continue and in the spirit of gentle honesty I feel I should share a recent decision Beci and I have made.

We have decided to divorce. After 21 years of marriage this is a major decision and hopefully one that will allow both of us to continue our own gentle honesty and personal growth. I know that we both hope to get through the next few months with grace and dignity and emerge with a respectful relationship that still supports our kids and those we love. Mediation and living a mindful life, aware of those thoughts and feelings that swirl and eddy, is at the centre of that intention and I consider myself fortunate that I have embraced this path less traveled. I will continue to consider how photography can also support this way of living and look forward to the experiences along the path.

 

Inner world – outer photos

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of 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 that we must communicate.”

Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Theory

What we choose to photograph. How we chose to photograph. These are the choices that reflect our inner world. This happens even if we don’t plan every creative decision. Every photo we create is an element of us; a small part, an instance. Maybe a disposable moment. Maybe a decisive moment. But each is a moment that reflects our conscious and sub conscious thoughts.

Sometimes we set out with an intention. We chose a location, time, place, a circumstance, to tell a story. How we tell that story reflects part of who we are. No two photographers at the same place and time will take exactly the same photographs. There will always elements of our experience, our self in the photo.

Sometimes we set out with an intention to create one type of photo, but because of our inner world experiences another type of photo emerges. When this happens we may be disappointed by our deflected intention. Later we may recognise that what we created was a contemplation of our experience in the moment. A personal story of how the world was for us in that moment.

Practice

Yesterday, I walked back along Swansea Bay promenade from Mumbles, with my hound Monty. It is a flat 3 mile walk along a bike path and beach and I decided to practice Mindful Photography. I didn’t have any clear intention, but I imagined that I would just be present with the visual stimulation and create photographs of what caught my eye.

I had my compact camera with me that also has full manual features. I mention this because the photos I created made full use of the manual settings. I found that nothing caught my eye. I was immersed in my thoughts. What emerged was a response to those thoughts, a desire to create something that reflected how I felt.

Of course what I was experiencing emotionally may not be what you experience when you look at these photos. That is both the beauty and challenge of photography. But I offer them anyway, without title or explanation. Simply a reflection of my inner world at a particular moment.

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UK Government gets mindful

What do you imagine would happen if the UK Government got interested in the application of Mindfulness? You no longer have to wonder. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness has just published its findings and presented them at the Palace of Westminster.

This is an historic moment. Not yet widely reported, I picked up on it after a friend sent me this link to a report in the Huffington Post. After reading the article I thought I had better do a little background research, not that I doubt the press, but the Huffington Post can be a little left field!

Mindful Nation UK is a report 2 years in the making that has just been published by the Mindfulness All Part Parliamentary Group (MAPPG). It has been supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, who appear to have involved many of the great and the good in the UK and beyond, in their organisation and the process. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax are their patrons.

The executive summary of the report (first few pages) is worth a read and in a wide ranging set of recommendations they have considered the application of Mindfulness in the National Health Service, education, the workplace and the Prison Service.

This is a fascinating and heartening development. We wait to see how the realities of implementing the recommendations in a current culture of reducing public spending pan out. As an eternal optimist I can imagine that the advocates of the report will highlight not only the potential for positive outcomes, but how those outcomes may save the government money.

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Learning Mindfulness

It struck me that there may be some of you out there who may be curious about mindfulness and interested in learning more. So I thought I would share a few links to useful resources.

BeMindful.com offers an online course in developing mindfulness. This looks interesting and helpful. It costs £60 or $95 and can be done at any time, anywhere. I believe that you can start it for free, to see if it is for you, before committing to payment.

Other online courses are available. Perhaps one of the best known for meditation is Headspace, which also is available as an app and encourages you to meditate regularly at a time to suit you.

If you prefer face to face learning and are based in the UK then BeMindful.co.uk provide a search facility to find a Mindfulness teacher near you.

There are a wide range of links and resources available at the online magazine Mindful.org. The link here will take you to a collection for those just starting out

Alternatively if you are interested in the roots of Mindfulness then an understanding and enquiry into the Buddhist Dharma might be of interest. There are many online resources available. A simple internet search will reveal resources shared by individual teachers, teaching centres and many more. One of the largest resources is at Dhama Seed. A wide variety of teachers and talks are available for free, donations are encouraged.

Alternatively, you may prefer to visit a centre near you. There are many across the UK, USA and Canada. Again an internet search will reveal those in your country.

 

Every cloud has a silver lining

Often I create photographs to illustrate my posts. The idea for this post though was inspired by the panoramic photo below. It is a composite photo of Caswell Bay Beach which, if you click on the photo below, you can experience at full size.

The title of this post and its theme leapt into my conscious mind whilst I was editing the photo: a literal example of the proverb that is the title of this post. The meaning of the proverb, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ is an encouragement to remember that every seemingly bad situation has a good aspect to it.

I thought that it would be interesting to reflect on this proverb from the perspective of mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy and to relate this to my own experience.

Judging Mind

The proverb is an encouragement to look on the positive side of every situation. This could be seen to be helpful, but it implies that the truth is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ situations, events and happenings in our lives. From a Buddhist perspective this would be an example of the judging mind in action.

The judging mind is a quality of mind that has certainty and rigidity at its core. It is a quality that imagines that we know how things are and that we are attached to our likes and dislikes. As a consequence when something happens that we do not like we judge the situation as ‘bad’.

In traditional Buddhist terms the judging mind is a manifestation of one of the three intoxicants; aversion, attachment or ignorance. This means that beneath our judgement of the situation as ‘bad’ we are either keen to not experience the situation, or we are attached to the idea of it being different, or we do not understand what is happening.

The judging mind is something we can notice arising when we meditate or take photographs. In meditation we sit, follow the breath and our mind continues to experience thoughts, sensations and feelings. We may simply judge this experience as a ‘bad’ meditation and that when our mind is quieter as a ‘good’ meditation. Alternatively, we may get caught up in one particular thought and notice that it is a replay of a recent experience and that we are judging how we acted or spoke.

In photography the most common manifestation of our judging mind is when we review our photos. Whilst a constructively critical approach is essential to skills development, a strong judgement that photos are ‘good or bad’ may discourage experimentation, limit creativity and hold back the learning process.

A judging mind is a small mind, closely attached to our smallest self. It reinforces the idea of separation, that we are different. Meditation and mindfulness are the opposite of this. They encourage the development of non judging attention; that we notice what we are experiencing, the thoughts, sensations and feelings but that we do so in a forgiving manner. We hold our experience with compassion. We experience our world with loving kindness and equanimity.

Real world

Of course this is great in theory. It is an ongoing practice. My current experience is that a long term chronic health condition, plus recent acute attacks, has provided rich ground for practice. Sure I get caught up in my personal experience. It sends ripples through every aspect of my life. I do get attached to beliefs that my interpretation of situations is correct and this then leads to judgement, difficulty and disharmony with those who do not share my perspective.

Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to sit quietly and notice the thoughts and feelings that arise attached to these experiences. It provides the space for compassion to flourish. Within this practice is the possibility of not judging, of noticing, not reacting, but holding the experience with loving kindness. It is challenging and I remind myself that compassion starts for my own reactions, my own judging mind.

I know that these reactions are patterns of thought that have been repeated and reinforced over many years. Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to notice and to remember that there is another way. It is a practice, a practice for a lifetime.

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Rhythms of Life

Life is full of rhythms. From the seasonal to the physical. External to internal. We live through many processes. Some of these rhythms are slow changing yet immutable, like the seasons. Others are triggered by events or actions and play out in a cycle.

Often we are so immersed in our happenings that we are not conscious of the role a rhythm is playing in our life. Mindfulness provides us with the opportunity to observe life. To slow, to breathe and maybe even to stop. Then in our moment of stillness we may feel, see, notice what is playing out.

When we meditate we observe what is arising in our consciousness. We may use the breath to attempt to slow and anchor the mind, and occasionally we may experience a moment or longer when we are simply noticing what arises. The thoughts (always the thoughts), the sensations and we can just be with this practice.

This is helpful practice that can influence how we go about our day. At least I hope it is! I meditate with the aspiration that the practice seeps into my everyday living; that I become more aware of what is happening, how I am being. Perhaps then, I will feel the rhythms that are carrying me along.

This is a thought that I have entertained this week as I have noticed the seasonal change towards autumn. This awareness has also caused me to reflect upon the physical, emotional and habitual rhythms that are part of my current experience. Not that I have reached any epoch making conclusions. It feels enough to be slightly more aware of some of what is playing out. And just like meditating, this present moment awareness is transitory.

However, the glimpse provides a play of light over elements that are sometimes in the shadows. This clarity of vision maybe momentary, but at least I know it is there and available.

Paignton – a mindful photography practice

I lived in Paignton between the ages 11 and 16. It was the early 70s. In fact I have just created a 70s playlist to accompany me as I write this piece. I am currently with The Eagles ‘Take it easy’; Neil Young, The Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan, Supertramp, Thin Lizzy and the Vapours are all on their way!

So when I visited earlier this week there was a nostalgic video of teenage high (and low) lights playing in my head. In fact, many of the memories of actual events were also jumbled up with memories of more recent dreams of the streets, parks and areas of Paignton I frequented. This fragmented video track was stimulated by my route through the town and down to the seafront. Of course it all appeared a lot smaller than it used to be and a lot less busy.

I parked at the back of the town centre park, close to where I recall the library used to be. As a kid I visited this many times and still check out books in my dreams. But the library was long gone, in place was a new development of retirement flats. I wandered on through the park, remembering the shortcut to the seafront I used to whizz through on my bike. This was all much as it used to be, but with an absence of ducks.

My summer memories of Paignton seafront are of a beach and lawned area rammed with grockles (tourists). Often there was hardly a patch of grass or sand to be had by lunch time. This time I wandered through and found it busy, but with plenty of space. Once down on the front I found the photography flowed. I felt comfortable, at home amongst familiar scenes, and I believe that the photos below carry some of that warmth, as well as a curiosity to capture the British tourist at play.

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Gratitude Practice

It is easy when beset by difficulty to loose sight of the positive aspects of our lives. A darker mindset may squeeze out the light from these often simple but uplifting corners of our day. I have for several months been reflecting on my day and identifying the things that I am grateful for. In past times our forebears called this counting your blessings, the phraseology may differ, but the intention remains.

At the end of each day, before you drift off into your night time routine spend a few moments reflecting on those aspects of your day that you are grateful for. These may be of any size, from a special event to a smile from a stranger. They might be quite simple, such as the way light fell upon a stream, or quite momentous, as one of your children exceeds their own expectations. Each night, reflect upon your day noting those moments that your are grateful for.

Lately, I have been following this practice in a more structured and sharing manner. Every night I reflect and identify 5 things from the day that I am grateful for. I then email those things to my sister in Canada. Kim, then at the end of her day (breakfast time for me!) sends me her 5 gratitudes. Not only are we getting positive vibes from our days but we are maintaining contact and involvment in each other’s lives, something that neither of us usually score top marks for!

Those of you who are interested in neuroplasticity, the science that investigates how our activities and behaviours can shape the formation and development of our mind, might be interested in this practice from its potential to change a negative perspective to a more positive one, in a gentle and progressive manner. I can’t speak for the certainty of this, but on a personal level, I do find it a supportive and affirmative way to end each day. Why not give it a go with someone who you love, but perhaps don’t see as much as you would like?

The Science

Here’s an interesting link to the science of gratitude from the University of Claifornia, Berkeley

Acceptance

This is the fifth in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Acceptance, Non Striving, and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

 

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.

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 to oneself and others. These practices encourage us to be compassionate to our present experience,. To accept ourselves: 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.”

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

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As applied to photography

We can practice acceptance through photography in two key ways. The primary opportunity is the use of photography practice as a method of understanding and processing our current experience. In The Mindful Photographer I offer mindful photography practices and assignments that encourage a tuning in 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 elements of photography composition can represent emotion. This includes knowledge of representational ideas for colour, shape, tone and so on, as well as the use of visual metaphors and symbols to communicate ideas and feelings.

On a more instinctive level we can also practice responding photographically to our environment when we are experiencing a strong emotion; creating photographs that spring from an intuitive response. These may well include a knowledge of the visual language of a photograph, as described above, but our response is less planned and controlled and may run contrary to popular ideas. Resting instead on how the visual experience resonated with how we felt.

The second opportunity is to understand and accept the kind of photographer (and person) we are. This is partly about what it is that we like to create photographs of, and partly about what those photographs can say about ourselves, as well as about the subject. How the outer world can reflect our inner world. This idea, of using photography as a vehicle for personal inquiry, I will begin exploring in a Mindful Photography course called ‘Being’ that will be available in 2016. Sign up for the Newsletter (top right column) if you want to keep in touch with developments.

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The Photos

The photos that accompany this article were created as a response to feelings I experienced when finding out about events that occurred in my life during 1972. It was difficult to connect with how I felt with these events, some 40+ years later. However, I was able to walk, think about the events and connect with how they made me feel now, and respond by taking photos of my environment. The editing process also formed part of this experience on this occasion.

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Mindfulness in the media

This year The Guardian has carried two articles relating to an impeding 7 year study by Oxford University and University College London on the effects of mindfulness on 7,000 11 to 16 year olds. The two articles demonstrate two of the prevailing attitudes in our media to Mindfulness: factual reportage or ill informed sensationalism dressed up as entertainment.

I have provided the links above for your enlightenment. Both are entertaining reads, which after all is the function of a journalist, and they are (understandably) a product of their time and culture. There is another type of modern media mindfulness article which exists, the ‘mindfulness will cure all known ills’ type.

I have written before about this media interest in all things mindful  (McMindfulness revisited) so I am not going to go over old ground. I just want to say one thing.

I see mindfulness as a doorway. Once you pass through, begin a regular meditation practice and slowly start to bring more present awareness to each moment of your life, something changes. The changes are small and incremental. They involve you developing new habits. In the language of neuroscientists, you are creating new neural pathways. These new paths of thinking are like treading an off road track alongside your normal motorway route. They maybe slower going and somewhat unfamiliar. However, with patience and commitment, new ways of thinking and being are created.

The 7 year study will be studying this very thing. During early teenage years the part of the brain (the frontal lobe) that mindfulness can influence is subject to major development. Won’t it be interesting to see how many of the 7,000 teenagers both last the course and have significant benefits over time?

Trust

This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non Striving, Acceptance and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

Mindfulness perspective

Mindfulness practice encourages you to trust your feelings. Your practice is personal to you. By trusting your own authority and guidance, confidence in your experience gathers. As you tune in to the experience in your body and mind, you develop an understanding of what is happening. Your ability to trust in your experience grows.

This may exhibit in a greater understanding of how to support your body. If you practice yoga or any sport, trust in your intuitive body response, watch it and follow its guidance, you will support your body’s development.

I am able to speak from experience, as someone who heard the messages from his own body, but paid them no heed. As a committed long distance runner I had plenty of physical indications that my body was stretched. If I had trusted that body wisdom, the physical challenges I now experience would not have developed.

Trust your experience. Trust your body. Trust your mind.

 

Trust as applied to Mindful Photography

There is a delicate balance to be struck as a photographer: between learning, practicing and trusting. As we travel the 10,000 hour journey towards mastery (Malcom Gladwell, Outliers), we are encouraged to learn study and practice our craft. We listen to wise experts, read fabulous books, follow great courses and practice our newly learnt skills.

Throughout this journey there is an implied thought, that what you are learning is how you should take photographs. And to a large extent this is true. We all need to master the technical and compositional skills. But if we are ever to produce personal, unique and authoritative work we must listen to our own heart and mind. We must follow our own intuitive guide.

‘Listening to your heart’ means tuning in to your feelings about what you are photographing. It means slowing down, speeding up and letting go. Paying heed to the technical necessities, holding the compositional choices lightly and then letting them all go in the moment you create a photograph. Something has to flow through you. This ‘something’ is guided by trust. Trust allows this paradox space. Mistakes sometimes create un-imagined possibilities. Great photographs spring from a framework of skill infused with inspiration, guided by instinct and held in trust.

Trust in your abilities. Trust in your feelings. Loosen the shackles of control

Fear 2

Many of our reactions to life, our choices and our behaviours are generated by fear. The fear could be fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, fear of a thing, fear of an event, fear of a decision and many more. Fear is the gift of our ego. Fear is the furnace that burns deep in our breast fueling thoughts that we are separate and precious and deserve more.

Fear creates stress and as I have discussed in my previous post stress generates a physical response in our body: the fight or flight response. This response sets us up to function at our highest physical level (to run away) but if the stress is an ongoing one a whole other debilitating set of body and mind responses may be set in motion.

So how can we support ourselves in a stressful situation? Can mindfulness help? And if so, how?

Fear Arising

This week had at its mid point an event that felt like the end of a chapter. My chronic larynx condition has deteriorated over the last few months and has been particularly challenging recently. This has resulted in more steroids than my body has liked and many visits to health professionals. Not having enough breath has been debiliating and the improvements bought by steroids have been short term and have not improved the underlying situation.

During this period I have been coming to terms with the idea that my quality of life can only be improved by some surgical intervention. I have for nearly ten years resisted the medical fraternity’s desire to perform a tracheostomy on me. The operation, whilst a life saver when your airway is blocked, has always seemed a barbaric solution to my problem.

However, the recent worsening of my breathing has led me to believe that it could bring an improvement to the quality of my life. Not getting enough air slows everything down, lowers my energy, makes me old before my time. My consultant at Swansea’s Singleton Hospital has often suggested the operation, but recently he asked if I would like a second opinion from Mr Sandhu. This surgeon heads up the top larynx reconstruction team in Europe and is based in Charing Cross Hospital, London.

The appointment to see Mr Sandhu was on Wednesday this week. As soon as it came through it felt like it would be the confirmation of my fears. That I would need a tracheostomy and I would have to learn to deal with the implications. Of course I hoped that there might be other possibilities that weren’t so draconian, but mostly what I felt was nervous and fearful.

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Mindfulness in action

I was fortunate that the lovely Rebecca went to London with me. Her love, support and determination to get the highest quality medical help have been an essential element of coping with the situation. We traveled up by coach on the Tuesday, the short notice of the appointment meaning that the train costs would be prohibitive (£200! The coach was a ridiculous £37 for two) and stayed in Hammersmith near the hospital.

Next morning, after a lovely outdoor breakfast, we walked down to the hospital. In the waiting room I didn’t notice how I was, but on reflection I know I was nervous and uncertain.

It is in the middle of this situation that mindfulness can help. There are two key steps

Step 1 – Pay attention

Notice what is happening in your body and mind. What can you feel in your body? Increased heart rate? Stomach turning? Faster breathing? Getting hotter? Acknowledge this experience. Feel it.

What thoughts are passing through your mind? Are you playing out scenarios? Are imaginary conversations or happenings flying through your mind. Notice them. Don’t follow the thought, just notice that it is there.

Step 2 Breathe into the body’s sensations

Breathe in and out. Breathe in and out where you can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. Experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as you live through this, you settle back into the present. Slowly, you begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.

And me? Did mindfulness help me? I was called into see Mr Sandhu, Beci came in too. We sat and went through the background. How the condition started and how it progressed. Then he examined me with an endoscopy (camera up nose and into throat) and general physical examination.

At some point during this experience, after the endoscopy I think, I briefly came into the space totally. I noticed my feet on the floor, felt the floor through my shoes. I felt my bum on my seat. I noticed one breath in and out.

Then he asked a question, “Are you prepared to have an operation?”

“Yes” I answered in trepidation.

“We can fix this” he said.

This bald, confident statement was a shocking relief. Here was a man with certainty. He explained that it might be possible to do some laser work and/or an operation to widen the trachea. This later option would result in a ‘whisper’ of a voice, but a far more open airway and no tracheostomy. My consultant in Swansea had ruled this out as an option.

What a relief! This is hugely positive news. There still is a way to go, including some investigation under anaesthetic, to fully determine the options. I will still need to push to ensure that Mr Sandhu’s team are the ones who help me and I need to maintain a low stress life until the definitive operation, but the future looks a lot more positive.

And mindfulness? Mindfulness is a tremendous help, but it is a practice and one that needs practice!

Fear 1

Fear is very much on my mind. This is a significant week for me and I am aware that there is a considerable swirling of fear swooping in and out of my mind. As part of living through this period with acceptance, compassion and wise reactions I am attempting to lean into the fear rather than run away from or resist its insistent voice.

This intention has been supported by a kind friend who has shared some very helpful talks by Tara Brach on the subject. I am listening, reflecting and re-listening to these talks and as I am finding them very helpful I thought that I would share them here and then later in the week consider how they have helped me.

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 1

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 2

A mindful photography practice

This morning I practiced responding to the feeling of fear in an instinctive practice. My inclination was that I needed to get close to my subjects but be wide open. I chose to attach my widest angle lens (20mm) and headed to the beach. I responded instinctively to my environment, both on route and on location. Once there I took off my sandals, felt the sand between my toes and went with the flow. When Monty stopped to investigate his environment, I did the same. These are the four photos that resonated with me when I down loaded and edited them. A black and white conversion felt essential.

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Non Judging

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non Striving, Acceptance and Letting Go. Each post will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

A little voice

Each of us seems to have a little voice in our head that runs a commentary on our life. Quite often this little voice assumes a critical perspective, sending thoughts that judge the current experience across our consciousness. These thoughts may often be judgments about ourselves (“I can’t do this”, I’ll never be able to sit still”, “I find this boring”) or about others (He’s selfish, “She always interrupts”).

When we are sat practicing meditation the frequency and loudness of the voice can become more apparent. Some describe this as a judging quality of mind. Not so much a quality though, more a habit. Built up over many years of trying to shape the world to our will, we all expect each day to develop in a certain way. We have our routines and commitments that we expect to unfold in the usual manner. When they don’t, because life isn’t like that, we are unsettled and pass judgement. The most common one being, “I don’t like this.”

As we meditate we have the opportunity to notice this habit, note it as ‘judging’ or ‘thinking’ and return to the breath. This instruction sounds simple, and it is in theory, but its consistent application is a challenge because these judging thoughts can be quite sticky. We can quickly get wrapped up in a judgement, that then leads to a thought stream about how we would like the situation to be different. Noticing this and returning to the breath is our practice.

The encouragement is to be an impartial witness to our thoughts. Watching what our mind does, with apparently little or no direction! We are only required to notice the thought and not act upon it it. Instead we return to the breath.

As applied to photography

In mindful photography our ‘Seeing’ is our anchor rather than the breath. As we practice, walking with our camera and following the 4 stage seeing practice, each time we notice a thought or judgement, we return to the seeing in much the same way as we return to the breath when following a sitting practice. This embraces exactly the same challenge as traditional meditation or any other mindfulness practice. We notice the judging thought, and return to our practice.

Of course in photography there are some quite common judgments that you might experience as you are learning. These could include: “I can never remember what ………does”, “I don’t know what I am doing”, ” My photos are not good enough”, “I’m no good at this”.

All of these critical thoughts are common when we are learning and practicing a new skill. We do like to beat ourselves up along the path to competence and later, expert. Of course the most common judgement in photography is that the photograph is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Now this is a fundamental barrier that it is helpful to recognise in ourselves and in photography. Whilst there are guidelines for effective photographic composition and it is true that we benefit from learning them, they are only guidelines.

If we are ever to create photographs that share something of how we find the world, we have to be able to let these guidelines rest lightly on our consciousness, to almost let them go their own way (more on this when we get to the 7th attitude ‘Letting go’). In the meantime here is a quote I love that goes some way to holding judgement lightly in photography.

“I don’t know what good composition is…. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness.” – Diane Arbus

For a fabulous resource sharing some of Diane Arbus’s most intriguing work visit Artsy’s Arbus page

One thing at a time

I am often asked what mindfulness is. Yesterday the guy cutting my hair asked. I explained, as he buzzed and snipped, that he should imagine that he was only doing one thing at a time. Only cutting my hair. Not thinking about later, or last night. Not listening to the heavy beat from his music choice. I think the irony passed him by.

But it is difficult. We have ingrained patterns. Modern culture has encouraged and taught us to do many things at once. Multi tasking is a skill. And of course there are times when it is very useful. But we have all experienced that moment when we try to recall how we ended up doing what we did (driving from a to b) and it’s a bit of a blur. Being instead of doing is difficult.

Even explaining the difference is a little tricky. Being is just being in the present moment, but that almost inevitably means that you are doing something. Even if that something is mindfully doing the dishes. The trick is that you are only doing that one thing, giving it your whole attention.

In the zone

In sport, just giving that one thing your complete attention, body and mind in sync, is described as being in the zone. I would suggest that it is mindfulness. Every sense, sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, is attuned to that moment. This sensory information is not held tightly. It flows through you, part of you and part of your place in the world. It is noticed and supports your awareness of the moment.

This does not just apply to sport. Mindfulness can be applied to any activity. Yesterday, I practiced putting out the washing on the line, mindfully. I felt the chilly air on our still shadowed deck. The damp sheets were cold to the touch. The colours of the sheets and blue sky beyond caught my eye. I could smell cut grass and then my thoughts would intrude. “Take a photo of it”, they would say. And I would bend down, noting the thought and slowly pickup the next item to be hung out. Each time using some sensory information to return to the moment.

The photo

When I finished I extended my practice to taking a photo mindfully; well I can’t be teaching mindful photography without continuing to practice! I put my own 4 stage seeing practice into action, alongside a basic camera scan technique and attuned myself to the visual moment. There were technical choices to be made and this all becomes more seamless and part of the moment the more I follow the mindful photography practices.

Reflecting

This week I have mostly been reading “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a swashbuckling blast through the relatively brief history of Homo sapiens, the branch of the Homo (Human) genus that we belong to. It sets out to explain how we have managed to be so dominant on Planet Earth, in a relatively short period of time.

Its main theme is that Homo sapiens dominates the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The book argues that we can do this because we have a unique ability to believe in things that exist only in our own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. The book explains how all large scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – are ultimately based on fiction. Feisty stuff and guaranteed to get you thinking about how you came to be who you are. Or maybe not?

Men being men

Just before I left the house this morning, to retreat and reflect, one of our Sitting Group members turned up, thinking that we were meeting today. Phil has been considering setting up a “Men’s Group” in Swansea and had heard that I was interested in being involved.

Now, before you leap off thinking that it’s all about male bonding rituals and deep and meaningful chats about football, here is a little summary (from this website)

Men’s Group explores what it means to be a man and supports men to:
* Clarify their direction and purpose
* Strengthen their integrity
* Become more trustworthy
* Be clear and grounded
* Be strong and consistent
* Know what it means to be at their edge and be held accountable
* Find peace, inwardly and outwardly

Sapiens and Sex

In his book Mr Harari clearly defines that there is one biological group Homo Sapiens and two sexes. He distinguishes sex from gender because gender has cultural interpretations. This came to mind when I was discussing the purpose of a men’s group with Phil.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for men to gather, share stories, listen and exchange ideas, is to understand how our gender has been shaped by current culture and to determine how we come to be who we are. This works for me and fits in perfectly with my own ongoing self enquiry.

Photography as a tool

I have started to use photography as a tool for self enquiry. I have begun to explore this area in The Being Course that is part of the online course, The Mindful Photographer. Over 2016 I am exploring using mindful photography as a tool for self enquiry. This initially will be in the form of a series of personal projects which I later hope to shape into a personally supported online course.

Of course, in order to do this, I shall have to continue my own primary research: continuing to explore mindfulness, practicing mindful photography, joining a men’s group, creating photos that represent how I feel and sharing it all via my blog. I guess that I am using you, my newsletter and blog as part of my continuing voyage; to boldly go where many of us fear to tread, but some of us get thrown into when it all goes pear shaped!

Retreat and reflection

Today I have escaped to my in law’s cottage in Mumbles for a ‘retreat’. Normally, when I go on retreat I am avoiding all technological contact, sitting quietly a lot, walking and photographing. I usually stay at a retreat centre in the Brecon Beacons, but they were full.

My intention this time is similar but different. I am first spending today reflecting on the week, as a way of understanding where I am today. Initially I have started this by writing my weekly Newsletter (there’s a sign up box on the right) and in that I have reflected on homo sapiens, men’s groups and photography. A seemingly diverse group of topics but all part of my week and today.

Now having released that part of my week I am ready to land here. This is my final post I will be writing for 2 days (Sunday’s is already scheduled). It is time to turn off, tune in and see what arises. You should try it.