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.

Welcome to the New Year. How are those resolutions going? What do you mean, you didn’t make any? Me neither. However, I do see this time of year as an opportunity to reflect upon the recent past and plan a little for the future.

As much as I like to live in the moment, living mindfully does include tuning in to how you are living. This includes reflecting upon the past without judgement, but noticing the thoughts and feelings that pass through. Maybe you consider how your choices could be made more skillfully next time something similar occurs.

Then it is also time to consider what is coming up in your life for the next few months. Can you organise your world so as to maintain balance and harmony. Oh, I know it won’t always be like that but I do like to start with a plan that supports the possibility of it happening! And yes, I know, “Life is what happens to you whilst you are busy making other plans” (John Lennon) but mindful planning and reflection can help.

Mindfulness supports your intention to respond skillfully, rather than react from habit. In that intention you then are more connected to how you are physically, emotionally and holistically. This then supports your ability to respond with an engaged mind and heart, making choices that sustain and support yourself and those that you love.

What’s not to like in that intention? I wish you a New Year that rises to meet your expectations, keeps you engaged with the joy of life and leads you to continue to grow holistically as a human being.

Ascend is the WordPress photo challenge of the week. These word challenges resonate when I can relate them to my living practice of paying attention to the world and responding skillfully to events and challenges, rather than simply following old habitual thoughts or actions.

To ascend simply means to climb up, or to rise. It is in the latter interpretation that I find an echo of my practice. To rise or soar, to my highest potential is ultimately my intention. I chose the word intention, rather than goal because I want to indicate that this is an ongoing practice, a daily paying attention, rather than a goal to aspire to. I am not certain that there is an end point, that would be the the purpose of using it as a goal. It is more a regular tuning in to how I am living. What I am doing, the choices I am making. The way I am through each day. Living a mindful life is regularly reminding yourself that you are intending to live a mindful life!

So to soar to my highest potential is a journey of small increments. Not of steps forward and retreats back, but more of flowing with the current of life’s river, my head above the water paying attention to my travels. It is about noticing when I fight against the general flow, or cling to the banks to avoid being torn away by the way life is heading, particularly when I am uncomfortable with the direction or speed.

I am fortunate, at least I call it good fortune today, I didn’t a couple of days ago. I get reminders if I cling to hard, or try swimming against the flow. My body reminds me that I am trying too hard. My breathing condition manifests as a physical change. I literally have to slow or stop, for my limited breathing will not allow anything else. After the initial anger, and the necessary medication, the breathing usually re-balances. And in that space, where I am right now I reflect upon my choices that led to the physical change.

Each time I get a little wiser. Only a little! Each time I learn a little more about how I am and how I could be. Soaring in your life is not a one time event, those ascensions are just happenings that bring us joy and make us feel alive. They are the opposite of the crashes. Both are to be treated with the same equanimity. They both pass, and by paying attention to how we are in them, we get a little wiser and more attuned to who we are and how we are. Living a mindful live is an intention not a goal.

The Photo

The photo is simple metaphor for keeping your feet on the ground when you are looking at the heavens. It was created all in camera, using a double exposure and playing with the white balance.

 

I went to the park yesterday with the goal of creating a photo to illustrate the word serene. It did not turn out as I expected. In fact the only photo I liked of the set created (the one in this post) echoed how I was feeling rather than what I had intended. Demonstrating that what I teach is in fact true!

On my online course, and at workshops and live courses I teach about how to illustrate a feeling with a photo. In summary there are two approaches.

  1. Learn all the ways in which you can use the elements of design (shape, form, colour – or tone in b&w, line, texture pattern and space) to indicate a feeling. This relates to our cultural interpretations and familiarity with the visual elements. A good example of our cultural interpretations can be found with our emotional reaction to colour. Just think about how red or golden yellow make your feel. How much of that feeling is culturally driven?
  2. Alternatively you can just go out when you are experiencing a strong emotion, pay attention to what you are seeing, not look for a photo and then see what presents itself. I know that this instruction is a little Zen like. To see, but not look. But I can guarantee that it does allow something to happen that is quite magical, a connection with how you are feeling. However, you do have to practice.

Back to yesterday, and the serene photo. I went out with a goal and some preconceived ideas. I did not practice what I preach! It was a glorious day and I combined a few ideas about what I imagined would provide a serene photo with some technical experimentation in camera.

It was all a bit too much. I was trying to hard and nothing really flowed. I became a little agitated. BUT (and it is a big but for me) I noticed. I stopped trying, went and sat down on a bench in the crisp brilliant sunshine and had a cup of tea.

I sat and I just looked. I occasionally created a photo. I took a sip of tea. I chatted with a local. I rested. In this slowing down I became more present, although still a little preoccupied with my goal. I reviewed my photos and noticed that one (the one here) illustrated my emotional experience just after I had stopped trying.

The photo made me feel a little unsettled and I wasn’t sure why. Now I know. It reflected my disappointment at not achieving my goal, my restlessness, my trying to hard. There is something a little unbalanced and forced about it for me. It has done exactly what I have summarised above in point 2. It has connected with how I felt.

When you go out experiencing an emotion and don’t look for a photo you may well find that you are drawn to create photos that reflect your inner world.

“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

ME or Multiple exposure is as old as photography. Back in film days it often happened by accident when you forgot to wind on after taking a shot, then the second image would be superimposed on the first. It is also something that I have experimented with in the past using a Holga camera – a medium format film toy camera. The image below was created in the cold Winter of 2011, and was created from three consecutive exposures.

Digital ME

When I owned a Canon 5D II I had hoped to be able to create digital versions of the technique, but Canon didn’t introduce the feature until the mark III was released.

This week I have been editing my Mindful Photography book (again) and rediscovered the art of Chris Friel a creative genius with ME and ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). He uses a Canon 5D III and is  self-effacing about his intriguing creations.

It was reading about his technical choices that reminded me that my Fuji X-T2 might have the facility to create ME photos. I checked and it does, although there are limitations with its use. Only two images can be combined in camera, whereas the Canons can combine many more.

I also noted in Chris’s generous advice that he uses many extreme settings in camera and tries to avoid doing much post editing work, only doing minor adjustments in Lightroom. This appealed to me. I like to work as much in camera as possible and it seemed to me that ME had the possibility of creating work that was an emotional response to found scenes, rather than documenting them.

A Mindful Approach

Of course being a photographer who is practicing living a mindful life I have started to consider a mindful approach to experimenting with ME and have come up with the following 7 steps. They are equally applicable to any genre or photographic technique.

  1. Read and study the skill. This is a great start.
  2. Understand the possibilities and limitations of your camera.
  3. Go to a location with possibility, stay in one place and practice.
  4. After each photo review what you have done and consider changes.
  5. Be compassionate with your creations. They are signposts to your path forwards.
  6. Share your art and get feedback.
  7. Keep practicing, refining, reading, studying, comparing and distilling what you create. Your aim is to discover what you like. Your photos only need to please you. Feedback from others is interesting and potentially helpful, but ultimately if you like the photo then that is enough.

In the spirit of being a teacher who practices what he preaches, I have started practicing. The photo below is my favourite from a set I took at twilight last night on Swansea Bay. I invite your comments! The extreme colours were created by playing with the white balance, the highlight tones, shadow tones and colour settings in camera.

Chris Friel recommends NOT combining ICM with ME. I get that, but I decided to experiment with it anyway. Hence the rather soft defocused nature of the tree. I believe there is possibility here and will continue to practice.

It struck me today, whilst out walking at the beautiful Langland bay that a ME selfie would make the perfect header image. The me in ME! Here it is below in all its glory. I will continue to practice and refine how and why I use this technique. I am interested in its ability to convey emotion experienced through visual elements of design and the blurring of what we consider reality. Watch out for more ME!

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

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

 

Acceptance

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

Acceptance is the quality that allows us to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages us to turn towards the difficult experience. To sit with the feelings, sensations and thoughts, allowing them to ebb and flow and slowly, bit by bit allowing them a little space in our lives.

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

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

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

As applied to photography

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

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

Non Striving

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

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

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

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

As applied to Photography

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

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

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

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

 

“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads.  Not knowing where I am going is what inspires me to travel it.” – Rosalia De Castro

I have been a little preoccupied of late. Very busy living life; fulfilling commitments, completing tasks. It leaves little room for reflection and contemplation. As a consequence my blog posts have echoed this period, with plenty of feedback upon my live and online courses. Nothing wrong with that of course, but just occasionally it helps to stop, get quieter, be a little less driven, reflect upon where you are at and contemplate the path ahead.

I was sent the quote that heads this post by my Mum last night. She lives in Canada and dutifully sends me things she comes across that she thinks I will find interesting. The quote comes from a novel about a man who restores old photographs, and I have a few more quotes she sent to call on too.

Following the path

I particularly resonated with this quote. Since I quit my part time job in May I have been working freelance. This has involved a period of re-adjustment and of course, trying to generate work that pays! I have launched my online course and I am delivering a live version of it to Brain Trauma Injury survivors. Both are going well.

I also have project work with the Arts Council Wales, working with schools, pupils and artists to deliver creative learning. It’s great fun, inspiring and interesting. It is also, like all contracted work, short term. I know what I will be doing, work wise, up until June 2018, but beyond that it is a mystery.

I kinda know the path I am on. It involves developing and delivering more mindful photography courses and workshops, both live and online. This resonates with my own personal exploration and intention to live as authentically as possible. The two aspects are intertwined and together form the path.

What I am uncertain about is what lands I will travel and where the path will take me. That is both the attraction and the uncertainty of the path. And as Rosalia De Castro said, ‘…….not knowing where I am going inspires me to travel it.’ But occasionally it is seems helpful to stop, look back at the path travelled so far, look ahead at it disappearing over the hill and wonder at the magic that keeps me on track.

 

 

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

Homework – Rightness and Wrongness

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

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

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

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

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

Beginner’s Mind

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

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

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

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

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

Homework – Acceptance

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

 

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

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

I believe that there is one more essential attitude: intention

Intention

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

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

Ed Halliwell Mindful.org

The Practice

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

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

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

The photos

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