Over the last couple of months I have been supporting ‘A Mental Picture’ an ABMU Health Board Heritage Project in Partnership with Swansea University & Swansea Museum. My role has been to provide photography guidance and support to the people who come on our tours of Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea.

Cefn Coed Hospital building work began in 1928, utilising Unemployment Relief schemes. The hospital was opened in December 1932 by the Princess Royal (the daughter of King George V). At its peak it provided care for up to 600 patients with mental health issues and was almost self sufficient.

The hospital is due to close and its role in the Swansea Community is being curated and celebrated in an exhibition at Swansea Museum in 2019. The photography tours I have been involved in have been provided to enable interested members of the public the opportunity to create photographs that capture something of the hospital’s history and place.

My Photographs

When I have been on site and had the opportunity to create photos I have taken a particular approach. My intention has been to create a representation of a living, working building. This challenge in an empty closed building has been to integrate the passage of those exploring the site, but to throw their detail into distortion. This represents an echo of the buildings’ previous occupants, in an ethereal light.

The three photos that accompany this post represent my most successful outcomes of this intention to date. I would be interested to hear what you think.

 

 

“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.

 

In my efforts to live a more mindful life I have noticed (and the noticing is a fundamental part of this practice) that sometimes I reach a place when I am uncertain what is next. As a guy who is quite focussed and keen to develop my work in line with the way I am living, I get a little uncomfortable when I find myself adrift like this.

I have been in such a place for a while now. To some extent this was masked by busy-ness. Isn’t that always the way? Whilst we are busy and active we think all is OK. The activity, the action and the achieving all contribute to our sense of purposefulness. Underneath this drive to do there may well be an absence. It is only when we stop that we begin to notice that all is not as it appeared.

Actually, I had an inkling of this and I had noticed that I had not written a blog like this (mindfully reflective/thoughtful!) for sometime. My posts had been either reports on courses delivered or activities experienced.

Now my work has slowed I have noticed this and more. I have also noticed that I haven’t written a newsletter for 2 months. The last post I wrote that was about living mindfully (not course related) was in April. The question now I have noticed is, ‘What does this all mean?’

The answer is not completely clear yet. My intention is for my work and life to be as integrated and harmonious as possible, whilst still providing income. Over the last two months I have been delivering my new course, ‘Who Am I Now?” – which supports people to explore who they are after experiencing great loss or change in their life. Whilst I have been delivering this I have been aware that this is the work that I want to do more of. I relate directly to it, I have lived it and found a way of using photography to support myself to explore and accept it. Sharing this with others is what I want to do more of. That much is clear.

How I do this and what I focus on are the parts I am now working on. I have some ideas, but as they are not completely clear I have created some space for them to develop and solidify. You may have noticed that the website has changed. I have removed my online course, Start Here page and videos. Whilst these things were relevant they always felt like aspects I was trying to do because others were, rather than what my deeper knowing was telling me to do. By getting rid of those services and information I have created space for something to flourish.

My experience of creating, promoting and providing an online course has proved to me that whilst I can do this it is not the medium that I feel most at home with and I think that this affects the quality of my work. The online course is still live and supported for those who purchased it but it is no longer open for enrollments.

My strengths are in teaching – face to face where possible – in writing and of course in creating photographs. I am going to focus on those things. My inclination at present is two fold. Firstly, to further hone the “Who Am I Now Course”, and to offer that to other groups who would benefit from the skills shared.

Secondly, to develop the ideas and materials into book form. I am not certain how this would be offered, but I am currently considering the traditional publication route, self publication, and even a mobile friendly PDF version.

There you have it. Into the space are ideas and intentions. There is also the possibility that something else might emerge. I am going to attend to this wholeheartedly for the next month and then do something that I haven’t done for 30+ years, take August off! If you have any ideas for me please let me know, otherwise stay tuned for future developments.

I shall leave you with a recent photo. This was shot in Cardiff a month ago and will be exhibited as part of Disability Arts Cymru Annual Exhibition at Celf O Gwmpas, Llandrindod Wells next month (more news soon).

On the Edge of Summer Loving

 

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.”

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

 

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.

I recently went to London for a consultation with the eminent throat surgeon Guri Sandhu. I am fortunate to get to see this leader in Larynx reconstruction and even more fortunate to be supported on the visit by my girlfriend. Whilst we were there we stayed an extra night and took in a few sights, including the fascinating abstract art and photography exhibition Shape of Light at the Tate Modern.

For those of you with a curiosity about how we can shape light to create photographs where the subject is secondary and the interest is in how the shapes, lines, tones and patterns might make us feel, this exhibition is a must. It explores 100 years of photography and abstract art looking at those who have transformed reality, or have used photographic materials to create images with little obvious reference to the real world.

“Shape of Light reveals photography’s role in a wider history of abstraction……Throughout the exhibition key paintings and sculptures reveal the changing relationship between photography and abstract art.” (Tate Modern). The exhibition is on until 14th October 2018.

Here are a few of my photos taken at the Tate Modern inspired by the experience.

 

 

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

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.

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.

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.

Last Friday I started the first week of eight delivering ‘Who am I now?’ to patients from Morriston Hospital Brain Injury Service. This is the second Mindful Photography Course I deliver and the students had all completed the first course with me last Autumn.

The first course’s aim was to encourage students to apply and develop mindfulness to photography. At the heart of this was the intention to use what we see as our anchor, much in the same way as when we meditate we use the breath. The course developed the students attention to the moment and shared many photography practices that develop mindfulness and inspire the creation of personal, resonant photographs.

This second course has a different focus. In this course we will be travelling through more challenging territory, particularly using photography to explore how we are living now. This intention is relevant to all of us who are facing the difficulties that manifest when we experience great change or significant loss. These experiences throw up all sorts of difficult thoughts and feelings and generate powerful fears.

Over the next 8 weeks we will be looking at four key areas:

  1. Becoming present – The first week is a re-tuning into how we can use photography to encourage us to be present in the moment. This includes the Four Stage Seeing Practice, introduced in the first course as well as some Mindful Photography practices to create some personal photographs about how we are today.
  2. Experiencing your thoughts and feelings – Over three weeks we will be looking at how we can use photography to illustrate and explore how we are feeling and what we are thinking. We will do this by considering how we behave and feel when difficulty manifests in our lives. We will explore how we can use abstract photographs that represent our feelings, incorporating the seven elements of visual design and the use of metaphors and symbols.
  3. How it is now – Weeks five and six use photography to consider how our life experience is now. This is challenging territory and includes a consideration of how we react to major change and loss, how we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and how we can use gratitude to develop positivity for our life as it is now.
  4. Who are you now? – Adjusting to major loss and change means developing acceptance of who we are now and learning to love ourselves no matter what. For the final two weeks we will be exploring how mindfulness and photography can support this courageous work.

Each week I share some theory, both mindfulness and photography based and then everyone completes at least one mindful photography practice. These are photography activities that develop an attention to the moment and a mindful attitude to life.

Each of these mindful photography practices are an end in themselves. The practice being part of the process of developing mindfulness. However they also produce some photos which I will share each week

Week 1

In our first week my intention was to gently re-introduce the students to mindful photography. I provided a simple overview of the course to come and then we got down to some experiential learning!

The first activity encourages the use of touch and sight to develop the ability to use our camera as an extension of ourselves. It’s called ‘Be the camera’ and it’s a form of guided meditation practice.

Then we followed a mindful photography practice called ‘Right Here. Right Now’. This practice challenged the students to produce 10 photos in 50 minutes, with no deleting and no viewscreen to compose or review the photos to bring them into the moment.

After the practice we all sat down and before being allowed to review the photos (‘Notice how you feel!’) we did a 5 minute silent meditation. Then we all reviewed our work and chose two photos each to share and discuss.

The sharing and discussion is a key part of the practice. Everybody is encouraged to share why they chose the photo and describe how the photo made them feel. And here they are below. Next week  – experiencing your thoughts and feelings!

Find out more

This course is rich territory for people who are experiencing great change or loss. If you work with people who you think might benefit and you would like to know more please contact me.

When I first saw this week’s Word Press Photo Challenge theme of prolific I was stumped. Later as I was looking through some photos I had created at last week’s first session of a new live course with Brain Injury patients (news later this week), I realised there was potential in my favourite form of selfie.

I often create selfies that use my shadow, so I did a trawl through my photos and found loads of examples. Almost prolific. All that required to do was to create a compilation. Here it is.

As I type this I am sat in a cafe drinking tea (of course) waiting for a garage to phone me back and tell me that my car’s brakes are not a problem, or more likely that certain costs are due. The waiting, any waiting, is an exercise in patience and perhaps one that in our fast paced modern life we resent. How does a mindful photographer occupy his time when he has to wait?

Fortunately, this morning the sun is shining and the sky is dazzling bolt blue. Bright low light abounds, shadows are out to play and the world appears vibrant. The garage I dropped the car at is on the edge of town, so I have wandered into the centre for a cuppa.

I like the town centre when it’s quiet and shiny. It imbues a sense of ownership when at any other hectic dreary time I want to be far away. I walked up from the garage just noticing the interplay of light, shade and colour. When something caught my eye I stopped, pulled out my glasses (the trials of using my second camera without a viewfinder) and created a photo.

I only stopped three times before reaching my destination and each photo here both represents those pauses and captures what attracts me on a bold sunlit morning. Waiting is easier with a positive way to spend my time. Using the time to take in my place and reflect it in a photo or two not only makes use of the time, in roots me in the moment and allows the morning to further brighten my day. Then I can write about it and share it with you!

I recently took part in a great mindfulness in the woods workshop with Woodland Classroom led by Lea and James Kendall. We were based in Penllergare Valley Woods in Swansea and spent 3 hours following a variety of mindful activities.

We met in the car park at the re-imagined Penllergare Woods. From there Lea encouraged us to be present with the feeling of our feet on the floor and our movement of weight through our walk to the woodland base. Here we met James and sat in a circle around an open fire, acclimatising to the world around us.

Lea and James led us through a series of mindful activities that celebrated the woods and our presence in them. I found the session invigorating and grounding, feeling refreshed and breathing deeply and well. It is easy to forget how re-balancing nature is, Mindfulness in the Woods Workshop reminded me of its power.

Lea and James will be running another Swansea based Mindfulness in the Woods workshop at Penllergare Woods 2nd June. Book early to avoid disappointment, the last one sold out!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our lives flow against a backdrop of continual change. There is nothing that remains constant or static. A few of these changes are instant; with others the speed of change is so slow that we can convince ourselves that all is as it has always been.

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

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

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

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

My Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness and Photography

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

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

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

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

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

Mindful Photography Practice for living with difficulty

Feel the photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“There is a love no one remembers” Jon Fosse

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

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

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

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

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

Stopping

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

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

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

Reflection and connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of your greatest challenges will be in accepting situations that are difficult, situations when the world is not how you would like it to be and there’s a ‘Why Me?’ screaming in your head. I thought it might be helpful for you if I shared my current experience (which in turn will help me) in the hope that it will provide you with a way to accept your own difficulty.

Over the last year my breathing condition has changed. Generally I am OK and live a full and interesting life. However, my best breathing condition has worsened slightly. As a consequence this means that my worst breathing condition has also worsened. So when I overdo it, falling into old behaviour patterns that stretch me a little, I face difficulty.

I struggle on for a while, but eventually succumb to an essential short course of steroids to open my throat and remind my body how it can be. This then remains stable until I next stumble into my old behaviour. And so the cycle continues.

The current challenge is that this is not sustainable and this is the first stage of moving towards acceptance of difficulty. Recognising how things really are, rather than how you would like them to be.

Recognising how things are

I would like my baseline breathing to be better than it is. I know that over a year ago I was able to do more gentle exercise (even a little bit of 5 a side footie) than I am now. I know that I am having to take short courses of steroids more often that recommended and more often than over a year ago. I know that I need to make some difficult decisions.

I didn’t come to this recognition quickly or easily. Now, reflecting back on the last six months, I realise have known this truth for some time. However that knowing has been hidden behind wishful thinking. I have imagined that each time I take a course of steroids that my breathing will return to how it was 2 years ago. It does not. This was a delusion, a common way that we all deal with the world when it is not as we would like it to be.

So how could I have accessed this knowing earlier? How can you recognise how things really are?

I believe that at the root of accessing this knowing is an honest attuning to our body and mind. This requires quiet: time when you are not doing anything. This could be meditation, or it could be just lying in the bath, or sat in your lounge with no other stimulation. No radio. No TV. No phone. No book. No chat. This contemplative time gives your mind time to roam. It will shoot about. But your opportunity is to watch this and to note what thoughts emerge.

The practice is not to follow the thoughts, but just to note what they are. Then return to where you are. Feel your body held where it is. Notice your belly moving with your breath. You are here now. The more you provide the space for this to happen and the more you practice not following, but observing the thoughts, the more you will learn.

Recognising the thoughts and feelings

As you provide quiet time for yourself and practice you will develop a greater attention. Some of your thoughts, and particularly your feelings maybe uncomfortable. It is quite likely that at their root there is fear.

My initial thoughts are about the physical difficulty. The struggling to draw breath. This carries with it its own fear. But I have become so used to this that I almost don’t notice the fear of not getting enough oxygen, but the background hum of disliking how it is and general tiredness pervades.

Beyond this initial influx of thoughts and feelings is a deeper fear. The fear of future consequences. These include more minor operations or a more serious life changing operation. The fears that surround these thoughts include feelings of helplessness, of loss of voice, of limitations to my social interactions, of judgement and many more.

Deep seated fears, often linked to loss, death or major change, are usually unacknowledged. They sit heavily obscured by busyness, by doing, by habitual behaviours. Only when you slow down and get quiet to they begin to rise in your consciousness. Space and practice is the key to accessing your deep knowing, for only then can you make wise choices.

Making wise choices

Ultimately acceptance of difficulty, of how things really are only occurs after time and this kind of practice. Only after you return again and again to the practice, to the quiet, do you begin to know, to understand how things really are. Then you are in a position to make wise choices.

Making a wise choice for me is a combination of rational consideration of the situation and the options available, combined with access to the deep knowing. That which you may call your gut instinct, or the wiser part of you.

In ‘Blink’ by Malcom Gladwell the English born canadian journalist explains how the human unconscious interprets events or cues and how past experiences can lead people to make informed decisions very rapidly. He argues that the more complicated the situation, the quicker we should make the decision, so as to access this deep knowing.

I would concur. But my present experience would seem to be a combination of working through the reality of how it is, before I will believe this deep knowing. Then I realise that I knew the choice I had to make all the time. It was just obscured by not liking how it was, by deluding myself, by avoiding thinking about how it was. Once I settled, got quiet and attuned I began to see my truth, how it really was. Then I was able to access the instinct, that which I always knew.

My wise decision has been to re-contact the London medical team who helped me 2 years ago, to begin the process of investigating how it really is. This is likely to result in surgery, either minor or serious, but I have to begin. I have to trust that this will lead to the best possible outcome, even if the fear thrums in my belly.

Accepting difficulty is never easy. However the vulnerability and strength in leaning into the difficulty, rather then running away from it, has the potential to lead you to equanimity and happiness, amongst all of the discomfort and messiness of life.