How it was

It is interesting when several aspects of your life converge upon a single theme. I had decided to investigate fear, its role in our lives and how we can live positively from it, because I knew that it would play a large role in this week. Coincidentally other happenings have followed the theme that were not expected, including this week’s MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course.

This post is going to review what we covered on Monday night in week 5 of the MBSR 18 months ago. Later in the post I will reflect on what I have learnt about meditation and fear since then. I will also be considering the two Tara Brach talks I shared previously and how they relate to this week’s MBSR course.

Responding instead of reacting

The core theme of this week’s course was how we can cultivate a response to stress, rather than a reaction. When we find an external event challenging or difficult our body responds to this stressor instinctively. Our reactions are led by our mind and in particular the oldest parts of our brain, the parts that control the flight or fight response. These systems are hardwired to produce reactions in our body that enable us to function at our highest level, so that we survive the threatening event.

These reactions are guided by the sympathetic nervous system which gets the body ready for flight or fight. This system, which is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), accelerates our heart rate, widens bronchial passages (for more oxygen), dilates our pupils, raises our blood pressure, shoots us full of adrenaline and increases perspiration. So we are ready for action! This is all fine and dandy if we need to take immediate action to save ourselves, such as leaping out of the way of a car that is careering towards us, but if the event that causes us stress is an ongoing one then it may not be appropriate or necessary.

Continual hyper-arousal like this can cause the system to become disregulated and lead to other physical problems such as arrhythmias, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, backaches and anxiety. We may then engage coping strategies, such as overworking, overeating and substance misuse (alcohol, caffeine, drugs etc). These in turn can lead to physical and psychological exhaustion, loss of drive, depression, genetic predispositions, heart attack and cancer.

What if we could start to change our body’s reaction? If we could learn to respond differently we could break out from this destructive cycle. This is where mindfulness can help.

How mindfulness can help

The guidance from the course is straight forward to understand. It is in its application where the practice is to be found. The advice is:

“Experience the stressor just as it is in the present moment. In other words we accept it and let it be.”

The first step, when experiencing a stressor is to pay attention. Notice what is happening in your body and mind. What can you feel in your body? Increased heart rate? Stomach turning? Faster breathing? Getting hotter? These physical symptoms are all indicators that the sympathetic nervous system has kicked in. Acknowledge this experience. Feel it.

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

The second step builds upon this noticing. As we pay attention to our body and mind’s reactions we allow it to happen, but we don’t try to make things different. We breathe, in and out. Maybe we breathe in and out where we can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. We experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as we live through this, we settle back into the present. We begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.

I know that is is not easy. I had the opportunity to practice yesterday. One tactic I employed was to not only feel it in my body, but to feel my body in the world. To feel my feet on the ground and my bum on the chair. This rooting down helped to ground me in the moment.

How it is now

Tara Brach’s talks describe these physical responses that the body is hardwired to produce when experiencing fear, as the Fear Body. I believe that it is a term first used by Eckhart Tolle.

I know that since I have learnt and understood how our body reacts to stress that I am sometimes able to notice how I am reacting in the middle of the experience. Of course sometimes I am so immersed in the experience that I am unable to notice. This is the practice! 

This reminds me that the main purpose of meditation is to train the mind, to train it so that we can pay attention, so that we can catch ourselves reacting and pause. In that pause we can reconnect with our physical experience,  we can come out of the stories or thoughts our mind is playing and root ourselves in the physical. Then in that moment we can choose how to respond.

Meditation provides many experiences and develops our ability to live mindfully through stressful events with skill, love and authenticity.

Now that we are four days in I feel I must ask you: how are the New Year Resolutions going? I hope that you are still filled with the enthusiasm (or guilt!) that gripped you a few days ago. If not perhaps this will inspire you. I am going to reflect upon my New Year practice, which is not dissimilar to the resolutions, but hopefully is a little more resolute!

It generally starts in mid December when the Unravel document is shared by Susannah Conway. This template first takes you through the year just ending, asking questions about the year’s events, your highs, your lows and everything in between. The second half of the document leads you through your hopes, dreams, expectations and intentions for the next year. In all it is about 30+ pages, all of which may be useful to you – and those that are not you can just skip.

I have now used this process for 4 years. Last year I finally found a way to make it stick beyond the first half of the year. The key is to keep the process alive. Do not just plan how you are going to live the year and then put it away. Commit to reviewing, reflecting and adjusting the plan once a month. This is enough and most importantly it allows you to adjust to the way life throws curve balls at you.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon

I finish the plan about now – I am doing this next this morning – and then schedule my To Do list app to remind me at the end of every month to review and adjust for the next few months. Actually, last year I found that it was helpful to only plan the first 6 months in detail and then build up the second half of the year as it drew closer and came into focus.

Practice

I see the whole process throughout the year as another mindful practice: that of paying attention to my life. It supports my daily meditation practice and my weekly mindful photography practice. All of these support me to pay attention to how I am and support how I would like to live.

Just before Christmas the importance of these mindful practices were once again highlighted by a little health wobble. I had taken my eye off the ball. My daily practice had slipped to 4 or 5 days a week and it is at least a month since I last did a mindful photography practice.

Now I am back on track. I have committed to a longer daily meditation practice and completed a mindful photography practice at the weekend. Actually this latest practice, the photos from which decorate this post, was part of a photo tutorial for my partner’s son. Whilst he did the task I had set, I followed the same practice, creating 20 photos in my inimitable abstract style.

2017

And so we commence another year. Much has been made of the nature of the last year in the media, but each year can only be a series of events, happenings, occurrences, births, deaths, elections and so on. It is how we respond, rather than react to these opportunities that matters.

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.

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.

 

Week 4 of the MBSR begins a deepening of the discussion around stress. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.

How it was

The full title of this week’s MBSR class was ‘Reactivity to stress and pain’. We covered a wide range of concepts, discussion points and practices, but by far the biggest discussion was around what stress was. As dealing with stress and chronic pain were the original reasons for the development of the MBSR by Jon Kabat-Zinn and there were quite different understandings what stress is in our group, I’m going to focus my thoughts upon what stress is.

Stress

Let’s start with some clarity. No one can agree what stress is. I know, there are plenty of definitions, but even the guy who first coined the term, Hans Selye (1936) later said to reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” There is some common ground, repeated in most medical dictionaries and websites, which define stress as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses.”

A general perception is that stress is a negative reaction. That stress is a ‘bad’ thing. This was borne out by our group discussion where one or two people could only understand stress as a difficulty or problem that they did not function well under. The fact that our body’s flight or fight response generates a cocktail of chemicals into the bloodstream in order for high functioning reactions, to perform at our highest capability and possibly to avoid death or major problems, is part of a ‘stress reaction’ is not always understood.

The scientist Hans Selye coined the term ‘stressor’ to distinguish stimulus from response. Hence a stressor could be a car accident or public performance and the stress caused would be the body’s reaction to this stressor. Then we also have to take account of our individual reactions. One person’s stressor is another person’s reason for being. For example some of us hate the idea of a public performance, others revel in the limelight.

Stress Reactions

Throughout our lives we have developed automatic reactions to potential stressors. These are habits that we have little awareness of and include: indifference, attachment and aversion. In each case the common theme is that we are not in the present moment, we are choosing to ignore, imagine other experiences or avoid the unfolding experience. The outcome of these habits is that we may not be aware that we are being affected by a stressful situation.

The MBSR is most concerned with awareness. If we are aware that our body is reacting to a stressor we are able to change that reaction. So how do we become aware? We have to tune in to how our body reacts to a stressful situation. Here are some of the physical and emotional symptoms our bodies may experience (from Boots WebMD)

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quietening your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear
  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Excess sweating
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

How can we be aware of stress?

We heighten our awareness of the moment by practicing mindfulness: meditation (breathing, body scan), mindful movement (yoga, walking, qigong), mindful activities (washing the dishes, eating, photography…). Each of these practices deepens our presence within the moment. In that space we can be more aware of how our body is, what our mind is thinking. Then with attention we can breath and be with our experience. Rather than turning from it, we turn towards it and in that space it begins to soften and lose its impetus.

My habits and practices

Now this is all fine and dandy in theory, but what of my reality. I now know that I have created my chronic health condition by ignoring my unfolding experience, not paying attention to my body’s reactions and acting out of a habitual response. My drive to succeed, to be the best I could be at my job and in long distance running led me to ignore the warning signs and allowed an acute breathing condition to become chronic.

Those habits are still with me. The difference now is that by continuing to deepen my mindfulness practice (meditation, yoga, body scan and mindful photography) I am now becoming more attuned to how my body is and I am then able to make choices that support my health.

It is an ongoing practice. The habits are decades old! However, mindfulness provides me with the tools to forge new neural pathways, new habits and new ways of being.

How it is now

The MBSR has been developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s understanding of how our body and mind react when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Mindfulness is offered as a practice that can heighten our awareness to how we are, right now, in this very moment.

It is worth remembering that mindfulness is described as a practice. As with any practice sometimes it goes well and and other times it does not. When we do not notice (or choose to ignore) that we are experiencing a stressful experience we then return to our habitual reactions. The body’s cocktail of chemicals to support us is released and we behave as we do usually in these scenarios.

This reaction will be personal to you, but I am certain that you know what I am talking about. My pattern of behaviour when I am not attuned to the bodies reactions, and events are getting too much for me is to carry on, take on even more tasks and continue to not notice that my body is starting to struggle. Finally this will manifest in an acute situation with my chronic breathing condition. I then notice and stop.

Whilst I am getting better at noticing this I still think that I am invulnerable and have more capacity than I actually do. It is of course difficult to admit to your own vulnerabilities – health, behaviours or habits – but this is the area where the work and practice is required. Understanding how we behave and the situation that leads to that behaviour is the first step in recognising the vulnerability. Admitting that this is something that we often do is the first step in beginning to change the pattern.

Mindfulness and meditation train our mind to pay attention. They provide us with the space to begin to notice how we are. I understand this completely now. It does though remain a practice, one that I am committed to and one that I am making progress. It is going to take a lifetime though!

Week 3 of the MBSR begins the sharing of ideas and practices to help ground us in the present. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.

 

How it was

Week 3 centered upon practices that support us to be more grounded in our body and the world around us. By being more aware of our physical sensations and our mind states we are allowed to be more present – right here and right now. The key practices we were introduced to were mindful movement practices and a practice that encourages us to take time to pause.

Mindful Movement

Sinead provided an introductory taste to 3 mindful movement practices: yoga, qigong and walking meditation. Each practice has the capacity to bring us totally into our body.

I have been practicing yoga for over 10 years, once or twice a week. I find that during the normal 1.5 hour class it can often take 1.4 hours before I find that the mind has quietened. Sometimes, even this is elusive. However, it is true that by focusing on guided body movements and postures in sync with the breath that we do come more into the body and often the mind’s chatter is reduced, slowed or calmed as we come totally into our body.

Qigong is a Chinese practice, much like yoga, intended to align body, breath and mind for health and meditation practice. It is practiced with slow rhythmic movements in time with the breath and is designed to move Qi (body energy) through distinct areas of the body. There are many forms of Qigong but all have key principles in common, these are: intentional movement, rhythmic breathing, awareness, visualisation, chanting/sound, softness, solid stance, relaxation, balance and counterbalance. There are also advanced goals: equanimity, tranquility and stillness.

Walking meditation is a practice I find very grounding. My experience is that is best done barefoot in a quiet flat space. Each step is moved through in a slow attentive manner, feeling the stretching, bending, changing balance and weight as your body adjusts and moves forward. Last night I walked on the warm bare concrete slabs of the balcony area of our venue. Through each step I felt the warmth of the stone moving across my skin. The pull of gravity as the rootedness moved through different parts of my feet: the pads, the toes, the heel. Rolling through a balanced awareness I came totally into my feet, oblivious to what surrounded me.

Time to pause

The ‘Three Step Breathing Space’ is a practice to bring you back to the moment. The first step is awareness and brings us into the present moment by adopting an upright posture. We can close our eyes and ask ourselves, “What am I experiencing right now?” We tune in to our bodily sensations, our thoughts and our feelings. We acknowledge this experience, stay with it and don’t try to change it.

The second step is gathering. In this step we return to feeling our breath in our body. In the rising of the belly/chest or the cool passage of air at our nostrils. we are aware of the breath in and the breath out. Totally in the present moment.

The third step is expanding. Now we expand the sensations of the breath to the whole body. We feel the whole body being breathed. We are totally in the moment and in this moment we make our decision based on where we are right now.

This practice is perfect when something unexpected and unwelcome suddenly occurs. In the moment that we would react outwardly, we go inward, and follow the three steps. At the third step then we decide upon our action. It’s like an upgraded ‘count to ten’ practice!

 

How it is now

Mindfulness and it’s application throughout my life has grown since 2015. But I’m not kidding myself, it remains both a practice and a habit that is developing.

It is my intention to sit daily. I generally get up at 7 do some yoga stretches and sit on my mat. Yesterday I did not. I was up a little late and had some work development stuff on my mind. Instead of sitting I attended to the work, but there was a difference. I was aware of both the choice and the attention I paid to the work task. I was immersed and attentive to how I was and what I was engaged in.

Having a specific activity when you practice Mindfulness helps you to burn new neural pathways. You develop new habits, new ways of being. These then begin to influence how you are during other times and activities. Practicing is contagious. Creating positive habits and behaviours influences your ways of thinking, feeling and living. Or perhaps I should say it has that potential. It is a practice and you need to continue to pay attention. This is the heart of Mindfulness.

Now I get it. I understand what is happening. I still fail. Fail to pay attention. Forget something. But I do not beat myself up. I am practising, it is ongoing. I am ongoing, an ongoing creation. So are you. Keep practising it will pay off.

 

 

 

Awareness

Week 2 is all about awareness. Awareness of the body and mind. In your busy western lives you move quickly through your day from task to task, achieving and doing. You are often so immersed in this task driven world that you pay little heed to its impact upon your body or the patterns of thought and feeling that your mind follows. If you are anything like me you may be doing a task or job, but your thoughts probably slip elsewhere from time to time; reviewing a past event or imagining a future happening.

Week 2 is about raising your awareness; paying attention to how you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling. This attention can be practiced during any task or activity, that is what makes it mindful.

What follows below is my post that I wrote just after the week 2 session. This explains my initial reactions and places it in a time and place in my life.

In the section after that I will consider how this mindful practice is progressing. How am I doing? Do I pay attention all the time? (clue here: don’t be daft!)

Week 2 thoughts from 2015

Week 2 of our Mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR) started in entirely different circumstances and continued in quite a different manner to Week 1. Last week the weather had been howling: gales and thundering rain showers. This week the sun was shining and the 5th floor balcony beckoned on arrival whispering, ‘come and soak up my sunshine’.

Last week had introduced mindful techniques that we practiced throughout the class. When I had returned home I found myself to be very still and happily sat in the lounge, dog on lap, in the quiet dying light until all the family arrived home half an hour later.

This week I had a diary clash. The session was always going to be different as I chose to keep a previously arranged and paid for cinema visit with a mate. I was with the group for the first hour when we experienced our responses to a couple of emotive stories. This spurred a discussion about our experience of our body and mind’s reactions to life events, where we highlighted the body’s responses to stress and discussed the kind of emotions and thoughts experienced during the reading of each story.

All of this was designed to raise our awareness of the role our perception plays in generating and interpreting events, emotions and thoughts. We were encouraged to notice the body’s response to an event or situation and note the thoughts; like fear, judgement, possible actions, outcomes etc. In noticing the thought and where it was felt in the body an opportunity to let the thought soften and melt away could be encouraged.

Now, I know that this ‘letting go’ of thoughts, particularly those entrenched in habitual patterns, is not an easy task. But the task of noting that you recognise the thought and where it has come from is the first step in allowing it space to fade away. I know it works. It’s just not easy, to catch yourself heading off on a familiar track, but I am reminded that it is a practice. So I shall continue to practice.

Practicing Awareness in 2015

Today I am struggling to breathe. A combination of the Photomarathon day on Saturday and today’s high pollen count has aggravated my ability to breathe. The thoughts that then swirl are dominated by fear. Fear of not being able to breathe. Fear of the necessity to take steroids and the post medical reaction. Fear of the need for surgery. All of these rise and fall, along with a feeling of helplessness that these episodes generate.

I give myself a little space, get an increase in my hay fever medication and do a little gentle yoga. In this space I feel softer, less fearful. Which in itself also reduces stress on the body and helps my breathing to recover a little.

 

Practicing now

The period between completing the MBSR and now has been one of massive developments and change. In 2015 my chronic breathing condition had reached a crisis point and I was just about to embark on visits to one of the top throat reconstruction specialists in London.

At the first meeting with Mr Guri Sandhu I was very nervous. I remember sitting in his consultation room, laboured breathing and shaking with nerves. However, I noticed that I had the opportunity to practice. I focused on my feet on the ground, my backside on its seat and breathed to my belly. And kept with this focus until we started talking. The consultation was a turning point, but not for the reasons I initially thought.

After examining and talking to me Sandhu stated, with calm assurance, that he could fix me. He promised to return my breathing to a much improved place, but there would be a major compromise, I would be left with a mere whisper of a voice. At the time this felt like a relief and a way forward. Breathing was such a struggle. Now there was possibility of improvement.

Sandhu also highlighted my weight loss (nearly 2 stone – I am of slim build and average height) and stated that this was not connected to my breathing and should be investigated. It was this advice that changed my world. A later diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes was a surprise, but provided explanation for the ongoing acute attacks. Once I was established and used to the insulin the lights came on, a fog lifted from my mind and everything else began to unravel.

Since then the major life changes including; the end of my marriage, an intention to live with authenticity, health stability, new work opportunities, new relationship, new friendships, writing a book and much more have provided many opportunities to practice paying attention. I know that this is integral to how I want to live. However, I also know that it is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I have spent over 50 years laying down neural pathways that take my thoughts and feelings down familiar roads. Travelling along new paths, in the undergrowth off road, is hard going and I often stray back to the main road. But the practice remains. I meditate daily. I practice mindful photography weekly. I notice the one thing that I am doing, thinking or feeling and return to the present moment. It is a lifetime practice and one that will continue to bear fruit.

 

Last year I enrolled and completed the MBSR at Swansea University. At the time I blogged a little about my experiences. I will be revisiting these posts over the next few weeks to share my progress applying the ideas and practices to my life. Please share your thoughts and feelings too, the course is now hugely popular and is a fabulous introduction to living a mindful life.

My first week of attendance at the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course at Swansea University was in 2015 and at the time I was living with some serious difficulty. My chronic health condition (compromised breathing) was particularly challenging and the reasons for this were yet to be revealed. At the time there seemed to be a serious possibility that I would have to have major surgery that would leave me with the mildest whisper of voice, but improved breathing. Enrolling on the course was very much a support for living through this time. I already had a meditation practice and had developed the mindful photography philosophy that is now central to my life. But I saw the course as an opportunity to embrace mindfulness wholeheartedly through my life and maybe learn something new.

 

The MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) Course

This is an 8 week course which aims to introduce mindfulness practices into our lives, enabling us to be connected to the present moment in all of its glory and grime. It is believed that this connection and acceptance helps to reduce stress by encouraging us to be totally present, aware of the choices we make and their impact on our lives.

It is my intention to write a blog post for each of the eight weeks, summarising what we cover and, where relevant offering a mindful photography practice that supports that week’s intention.

Week One: Auto Pilot

Our first week’s theme was ‘Auto Pilot’. Our tutor, Sinead Brophy, explained that the intention of week 1 was to break us out of auto pilot and alert us to the present moment. Sinead explained what mindfulness was (attention to the present moment) and what it wasn’t (counselling, therapy, a happiness regime).

Over the course of the 2 hours + we were introduced to some mindful practices. These included a ten minute guided meditation, mindful eating and the body scan. Whilst I was already familiar with these practices I found the session really grounding and almost a return to ‘beginners mind’. It was helpful to revisit shorter simpler practices and when I returned home I found that I was much quieter (in my head) and content to sit in the lounge sharing the moment with my dog and not seeking any external stimulation (TV, computer, book)

We were also given homework, which includes: a 20 minute meditation, 1 mindful eating practice per day and 1 mindful practice per day (taking a shower, cleaning teeth etc.) This all seems best done in the morning. At least then the busy-ness of the day will not deflect and there is also a chance that the practices will encourage a more mindful approach to the day.

This fine theory was destroyed when before leaving for work, but after meditation, mindful shower and mindfully eaten cereal,  I forgot to clean my teeth! Ah well, it is a practice.

 

My Mindful Life

So after 11 years of mindful practice and the MBSR Course have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Oh no. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of living.

Through my work with mindful photography I balance photography practices that develop mindfulness with an awareness of how life’s choices are determined. I still slip in auto pilot sometimes, 56 years of habitual behaviours has wired some neural pathways that shout to be used. But I do now have more practices, more tools to support my intention, and through this, occasionally more awareness of each moment.

A while back I was invited to share some ideas around Mindful Photography with local photography group the Snapshot Girls. I met one of their founder members Hannah at the Peg Talks and we got talking about photography. A couple of months later I spent a fun evening with them at their monthly meet up at the hip bar Noah’s in the Uplands of Swansea.

The Snapshot Girls were formed in 2012 with the intention of sharing ‘Fun, Photos and Friendship’ and they love all forms of photography and photos whether they’re blurred, brilliant or both!

I spent an hour or so talking through an introduction to what Mindful Photography is and how I came to apply and develop mindfulness through photography. Then I set them a little mindful photography practice and they shared their favourite photo from the practice.

I finished the session by setting them some ‘homework’ which was another mindful photography practice and they were encouraged then to complete it and share their experiences with the group. Yesterday Hannah sent me everybody’s favourite photo and they accompany this post.

So, if you are female, live in or around Swansea and love photography why don’t you get in touch with them?

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I have long been interested in the concept of a flâneur as it has a relationship to my mindful approach to photography. Whilst the dictionary definition of it as an “idler or a lounger” is of interest, Charles Baudelaire’s interpretation of a flâneur is more relevant. He described a flâneur as someone who is a detached observer of city streets, someone who is attuned to the seeing. For him it was not an act of loafing about, but one of sauntering along city streets whilst absorbing the visual feast. So when it came up as the WordPress Discover challenge this week I decided to dedicate some time to living the life of a photographic flâneur.

What follows below is a selection of photos that were created whilst sauntering through the streets and sights of Swansea. I wandered for about 4 hours, stopping for a cuppa and then meandering on. I followed my own 4 stage seeing practice that uses what I see as my anchor; the one thing that I return to when I notice my busy mind has itself wandered off.

Perhaps the concept of  being a flâneur is a useful analogy for your active mind. You follow the streets and practice attending to what you see, then a sight leads you down a thought stream and you are away on some exploration of the past or invention of the future. Somehow you notice, maybe it is another sight that brings you back to the present, and in that moment you are immersed in the seeing.

You raise your camera to your eye, photographic thoughts swirl: where should you frame the scene, what f stop should you use? You notice this, return to the sight that stopped you and somewhere between controlling all the photographic knowledge and being completely present you let the decisive moment to press the shutter emerge in its own time. A photograph is created. You saunter on.

img_8311 img_8317 img_8321 img_8323 img_8327 img_8334 img_8339 img_8340 img_8341 img_8344 img_8348 img_8349 img_8351 img_8352 img_8354 img_8372

 

 

 

 

Book your place

I am delivering a full day Mindful Photography workshop on 15th October at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. We will start at 10.00am and finish at 4.00pm and the cost (including booking fee) is £54. Want to know what it’s all about? Read on.

What is Mindful Photography?

Mindful Photography is an approach to photography and life that applies mindfulness to photography and through photography practices develops your ability to be mindful. Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat Zinn as “paying attention on purpose, to the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience moment to moment.”

At the workshop you will be introduced to practices and activities that use the visual experience to root you in the present moment, practices that encourage you to pay attention to what you are seeing and doing and in that moment create a personally resonant photograph.

Why get mindful?

You lead a very busy, active life. You constantly move from one activity to another and sometimes those activities overlap. Your mind is constantly busy, doing one thing and often thinking about others. Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to the one thing that you are doing. It sounds easy, but because of your busy habits it is very difficult.

During your busy days you may experience feelings of frustration, anger, inadequacy or relentless drive as you try to cram in and achieve ‘stuff’ in your day. You are impelled by a desire to complete, succeed and achieve. Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to these feelings. To notice what you are experiencing. Then you are able to make a choice. To react or respond.

React or respond?

You are hardwired to react to stressful events. This capacity for action and re-action developed to allow quick reactions when danger threatened. The oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, fires up at the first sign of danger or challenge. You know this as the ‘flight or fight response’. The brain readies the body for action, heart rate is raised as more oxygen is delivered to your muscles, you breathe quicker and your body is flooded with cortisol. You are ready to fight or run. You are ready for action.

This system still fires in our modern world when you are stressed. Being late for work, an argument with a loved one, your day going awry or simply being driven to complete a task so that it is perfect. These and many other similar events fire up the limbic system and you react in old familiar ways. You have, over many years, evolved ways of behaving when you are stressed. You will be familiar with your pattern of behaviour!

Mindfulness encourages us to be present so that you notice what you are experiencing. The first indicator that you are stressed might be noticing something physical (pounding heart, faster breathing) or it might be noticing feelings of anger or frustration – just before you erupt in action. In that moment you breathe. You pay attention to your body, notice the physical sensations; breathe.

Then you a have a choice. You may recognise the feeling, this experience. It is an old familiar acquaintance. You know how you normally react. Your choice now, fully in the experience and aware, is to respond. To respond with full engagement, knowing what is happening and knowing the consequences of your actions. How you respond is your choice. But it is a more skillful response than our habitual reaction and in that moment you burn a new pathway in your mind.

Motorways and off road routes

Your habitual response is like a motorway. It is the route you normally take, it is well prepared and you use it without thought. Engaging in a skillful response is like getting off road, with your machete, and carving a path through new ground. It is not easy. But each time you make that skillful choice the path gets a little more used. The way becomes a little clearer. Imperceptibly you develop a new way of responding. A new habit.

Why photography?

Photography is a familiar and creative activity. Attending to the visual experience as your mindful anchor, the thing that you return to when you notice you have started thinking about other stuff, attunes you to the moment. Applying mindfulness to photography expands your perspective. As you use the visual experience as the one thing that keeps you present, you see more. As you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that play through your mind you have the opportunity to create a photograph that responds to that experience. Mindful Photography leads to greater personal engagement in the process of creating a photograph.

Why not come along on the 15th? Expand your perspective. Learn about an engaging and stimulating approach to photography. Learn more about mindfulness. Learn more about yourself and create intimately resonant photographs.

Book your place

A Mindful Photography practice

I saw the sky and I could not resist: a one hour mindful photography practice with blue sky as the theme. Every photo created to have blue sky in the frame, either as the background, feature or reflection.

It is a stimulating practice to limit your creative options. By choosing one theme this also provides an anchor. Whatever is going through your head (thoughts, feelings or sensations) you can return to the theme, to seeing the blue sky.

I also wandered about with my camera in a particular and familiar set up. I had a prime lens on, so no zooming, only moving my feet and body. I had the camera in aperture priority, f7.1 and the ISO 100 (as it was a bright sunny day). This allows the technical choices to be limited (encouraging you to be with the visual) or to be subject of the practice, an element of being present.

This then allows me to create photos where depth of field is not a concern without further thought. The photographer Bryan Petersen calls this a ‘who cares’ aperture. From this point you can choose to change the aperture for creative reasons; a small aperture (f16 or above) for landscapes or a large aperture (f2.8 or below) where a shallow depth of field would help to isolate the subject from its background.

That’s it. A simple camera set up. One theme. Return to the seeing (blue sky – in this case). Here are my favourites.

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I was reminded today of the fragility of life. You would think that after a few life experiences that have demonstrated that it is a truth, I would have it at the forefront of my mind. But the idea that we are immortal is tenacious.

We carry on through our busy lives, racing from one important task to the next. These tasks define who we are. They shape our life and determine how our days are spent. And then, from left field, something occurs to remind us that it is but a gossamer thread connecting us to this entertaining video we call life.

Today I heard from a friend who has recently lost somebody very close to them. In fact over the last few months she has been training and then swimming the Channel to raise money, inspired by the circumstances her friend was struggling with. And then, just after the event, her friend died. As if this tremendous loss was not enough, life had another in store. Very soon after her friend died, the swimming coach who had been supporting their endeavour had a heart attack and died.

Even when we know something is likely to happen, the actuality and finality of death is still a huge adjustment. We have the practicalities, and friends and family, to support us through the early days of adjustment. But then, as life falls back into its rhythm, we may begin to lose our bearings.

The grief attached to any loss has to be lived through. The stages may be well documented: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but we still have to live through them. We have to live with the confusion and feelings of deep uncertainty. And of course we may be reminded of our own mortality.

Perhaps it is this reminder that can support us through towards the acceptance of the loss of our loved one. For this reminder of the gossamer thread can attune us to our loved ones, to how we are spending our time, towards what is truly important in our life.

We will always have the loving memories of our departed friend, but the most valuable lesson this difficult adjustment has, is to remind us to wholly engage in every moment. To tune in to what we are sensing, thinking and feeling. To be truly present in every glorious and grimy minute, for it will very soon be gone. Carpe diem.

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Fragile

The edge is a useful metaphor. Where and when do you feel your edge? Do you notice and carry on? Do you notice and ease back? Or do you not notice and plough on regardless?

Feeling your edge implies that you are tuned in, paying attention to your life. In the moment that you teeter on the edge of something you can notice a feeling of discomfort, just as if you are on the edge of a precipice and looking over. In that moment you can choose to feel your feet on the floor, to breathe in deeply down to your roots – the part of us that is connected to the rest of the world – and then make a decision. To step back or to jump.

There may not actually be a big leap between your edge and the future. It just feels that way at the time. The edge may be acute because of a potential change of environment, the road beneath your feet may not be that which you were used to, or it may be inhabited by strange new people!

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These are often big moments in your life. Moments when your choice may define how your future is shaped. As a long distance runner I learnt to push on beyond my edge; those feelings of huge physical discomfort are noticed but the drive is to carry on, to move forwards. To keep going.

This drive is essential to your life. Without drive you would achieve very little in your life. But when you reach an edge, you are there because of your life, your choices, who you are. Honoring yourself is paying attention to what is at that edge, why you are there and what lies beyond.

Paying complete attention to the edge, how you are and what might lie beyond is the first step in learning to fly. For if you are to leap off the edge you will learn to fly. You may not think that you can. But there is often only one way to find out. Leaping off, leads to flying. It is scary….and it is exciting.

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You can support the experience by paying attention to how you are. Notice the sensations playing through your body; they will be exhibiting in your belly, chest or throat. Breathe to that area and feel your feet on the floor or your bottom on its seat. Attune yourself to what you can see, right now in your immediate environment. Keep breathing deeply. Notice what you can hear, noises that are distant, the sound of your own breathing, maybe even your heart reminding you that you are alive. Notice the breeze on your cheek, the smell of the season on the air and those butterflies in your belly.

By tuning in to our senses and paying attention to our breathing we soften into the moment. Then we have space to notice the thoughts and feelings that are rampaging through our consciousness. Those familiar ones, the ones that are often fueled by your internal critical voice can be noted, just as you would a familiar acquaintance who you really do not like but have to work with. Note the thought, note the judgement, say hello and then breathe. Come back to your breath.

And there you are, stood at your edge breathing into the sensations, attuned to the thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Slowly and often imperceptibly the sensations will dissolve, the fear will soften. You will look at the edge and know that you are alive and you can fly!

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Edge

Three months ago I gave a talk at the now locally famous Peg Talks. These talks are by Swansea people who have an interesting story to tell and occur every 6 weeks or so at the Square Peg Cafe. If you live in Swansea or close and have not been yet then I encourage you to take one in.

My talk was all about paying attention: what happens when you don’t, and how I managed to get myself back to stability by bringing paying attention into my life as a practice. We currently call this mindfulness and I now practice and share Mindful Photography through this website.

If you missed my talk there is good news (or not depending upon your viewpoint!), it is now available to listen to below.  I was supposed to keep it to 15 minutes, all power to you if you manage the full 25 minutes!

If the link doesn’t work for you, Google soundcloud. Then sign up and search for Peg Talks. I’ll be listed. Happy listening.

There is a still point between the in breath and the out breath. And another between the out breath and the in breath. Each is milliseconds in length. Each is a time when the world is in balance. You may not be aware of their arrival and passing. But they are always there, always available.

The in breath requires us to do something; our body has learnt to drawn in breath, to extend effort and air is drawn into our lungs. The out breath is a release, we let go and air passes back out through our respiratory system. In between the effort and the release, the release and the effort are the still points.

I am writing a book on Mindful Photography at the moment that is about paying attention to the still point. Staying with that moment when all is in balance. It is about developing a way of extending its influence throughout every breath, in and out. It is about paying attention to the effort that has brought us to this point and paying attention to what we can release. It is about paying attention to our life, our choices and the ripples of consequence that resonate through our being and beyond.

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Mindfulness is paying attention

This paying attention has become known as mindfulness and it is all the rage. But whilst it may provide the media with regular column inches, for me it is more than just a fad, it has become a way through tremendous personal difficulties and a practice that is now central to my life.

Mindfulness is intended to be a way of living through every aspect of our life. The suggestion is that we pay attention to what we are sensing, thinking, feeling, and doing. Through that practice we learn to respond in ways that support us, rather than instinctively reacting in ways that cause us stress.  Most mindfulness books provide philosophy and guidance that allow us to apply the practice to our life. They are often written by Buddhist sages or learned psychologists. I have no such claims. However, I have learnt through personal experience how mindfulness can support a greater understanding of myself; my choices, my habits, my behaviours and the full engagement in every aspect of my being.

I have lived through the study, the reading, the courses, the sitting, the dreaming. I have thought that I was applying the philosophies, the practices. I have imagined that I was mindful, that just because I meditated that I was ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It took ten years before I began to recognise that this mindfulness thing is an ongoing practice. I knew that’s what it was called; a practice. I understood the idea intellectually, but I was not living it. The possibility that you never really crack it, that there is nothing to achieve, that it is a lifetime’s practice was a slow coalescing realisation. One that occasionally seems obvious and at other times remains elusive.

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A Personal Approach

My book takes a personal approach. It draws upon my midlife experiences of choices and consequences, of striving, of not paying attention and of the health challenges that developed. It focuses upon a particular application of mindfulness and shares methods, practices and activities that I have found of immense help.

I do not claim to be a mindful master, but I have found an application for mindfulness and a way of continuing to develop a mindful approach that I believe is quite unique and may be helpful for others. I call it Mindful Photography.

We are all photographers now. Most of us carry a smartphone with the capacity to create and share fabulous photographs of our world. Many of us also have a digital camera. The potential for creating a visual record is now part of our everyday life. My book is for everyone who wants to create personal and resonant photographs: photos that say something of who we are, what we think and what life is like for us. However, it is not just about how to create profound, expressive photos; it also is about living life, making mistakes, facing unexpected events, understanding ourselves and responding, rather than reacting to life’s difficulties.

In the book I will reflect upon the habits and behaviours I developed in my thirties and the midlife choices I made later that impelled me down the path towards a chronic health condition. Sometimes I may shed a little light on the culture at the time, but this is not shared as an excuse for my choices. It is more an attempt to unravel the impact our modern life and behaviour has upon our well being. I contrast these life experiences with the ideas and attitudes that underpin a mindful life.

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Why Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about paying attention. My life choices clearly demonstrate that I was not paying attention. However, over ten years the message begins to percolate my consciousness and I start to incorporate mindful activities into my life.

Have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Don’t be daft. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of being. Balancing photography practices that develop mindfulness with an exploration of how life’s choices are determined, I will share an intimate and truthful map of our midlife travels, arriving at a midlife manifesto that is my work in progress and could be yours.

Mindfulness has changed my life and developing this practice through photography has been and continues to be one way in which I have explored how I live now and how I can continue to live with authenticity, truth and love. Once you pick up a camera and start using it in the ways that I suggest your life may never quite be the same again.

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It doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to create a selfie. Not only is it a genre I regularly explore, I’ve also done a monthly photo project with FB friends (Beyond the Selfie) and I am just about to write the last chapter of my book about Mindful Photography; and that’s all about me!

So when I saw this weekly photo challenge title from The Daily Post I determined to create a selfie and write a post today. Even though my camera is tucked up at home.

And no, you should know that I am not self obsessed. Any more than the average egocentric human being. But I am fascinated by this thing we call the self.

The Self in the Selfie

There are many interpretations of what the self is, they vary from the classically psychological to the philosophically challenging. But one thing is certain. If you cut me open you will not find it. The core essence that you think that you are, your beautiful self, is not a pearl to be discovered residing in the oyster that is your mind. Perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean when they explain that there is no such thing as self; that it is not a physical thing, not something you can point at.

The explanation of the self that resonates for me is that it is a constantly evolving, multi-layered, and infinitely possible reflection of all that you do and all that you are.

So it seems entirely apposite that the mirror reflects an image of me, but I know that this is merely a physical and momentary sliver of the whole. All that I am and all that I can be resides in the possibility of the evolving self.

Exploring the Self

There is an inevitable consequence of living a mindful life. The more you practice, the more you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, the better you get to know yourself. Sometimes stuff arises that you thought long forgotten. Sometimes you are unaware that you have drifted away down a side stream of thought, far way from the days happenings.

Other times you begin to notice some of your habitual thoughts. Maybe you notice that small nagging voice that criticizes what you are doing, or how you are doing it, or what you have not done! Or maybe you start to become more attuned to how you feel about the people in your life, your job, how you spend your spare time.

I find that it is an inevitable consequence of meditating and practising mindful photography that I become more self aware, more attuned to how I am in the moment right now. And in that moment I know myself a little better.

The Final Chapter

The final chapter of my book is all about the personal photo project I have been following throughout the last 12 months of my life. Every three months I have spent one week creating only one photo each day. Each photo is intended to represent me, how I am, what is happening and how I am being. It is not easy only creating one photo, and I will be sharing some thoughts on how to best do this, but it is challenging and fulfilling.

As the photos build up over the week, months and year a story begins to emerge; a visual storyboard of the year, one week at a time. So far I have completed the practice 4 times and therefore have 28 photos. It is these photos that I will be sharing in the final chapter and telling the story of the last turbulent and marvellous year.

Many of the photos make use of metaphors to represent a thought or feeling, some document what happened and several make use of reflections. The mirror of my soul!

Mirror

I like September. Do you? I like it because it is a start of new beginnings in the West; it feels a little like a second opportunity at the New Year. Another chance to review where we are at, how we are living, and consider how we might change things.

Of course the truth is that every day brings us that opportunity, but we get so wrapped up in the doing, the striving to keep everything on track that we loose track of the important stuff. Immersed in our tasks and activities we forget to be compassionate for ourselves. We only see what we are not achieving, not completing.

Instead let us take this month, with its new start, to stop a moment and breathe. Consider for a moment all that you have achieved over the last twelve months. Reflect upon the moments of joy and love that have lit up your world. Hold gently those times of difficulty and confusion and know that through it all you are loved and that the sun will still rise tomorrow.

Try a little photography workshop this September

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I have been occasionally following the post topic suggestion from Word Press. When today’s topic of ‘Plop’ plopped into my inbox it was directly after another email, one of rejection, from a public sector provider and the word seemed entirely apposite.

Rejection is a common part of any artistic endeavour. When I first started as a photographer trying to gain commissions I soon learnt that for every proposal I made to a prospective client there would often be a resounding silence. I would put a lot of work into the sales pitch, considering how they could benefit and genuinely sharing how I believed I could provide photographs they would cherish.

Most often there would be no reply to my proposal. Many people do not like to say no and often choose to not reply as the simplest form of rejection. The not knowing why you had been passed over was often the most frustrating part, though my normal suspicion was that it was financially based.

Eventually over several years you harden to this inherent part of the process of creating photographic work for others. You tell yourself that it is inevitable and that it is not personal, but if you are honest, nagging doubts still persist.

Rejecting my baby

Recently I have developed an 8 week mindful photography course that is very close to my heart. It is very much part of what is important to me in the congruence of living with authenticity and creative photography, and as such is like a new born baby. So this rejection, whilst not entirely unexpected, is felt more keenly.

Of course noticing this attachment to my desires for success and blogging about it is part of processing the feelings. Now all I need to do is follow my own advice and go out with my camera and create some photos to accompany this post. And that I shall do any moment and you will see them below.

Meanwhile I will tie this up neatly by returning to the ‘Plop’ of rejection. That sound of something small dropping into your pond of tranquility sends ripples through your day. Simply noticing the small waves pass by and attending to what you are experiencing is enough to allow them to fade and dissipate. For that it is the way with all feelings. If we pay attention to what is happening and choose not follow the doubt and fear up its blind alley we will be able to accommodate its presence, allow its appearance and know that it is just passing through.

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Plop

 

 

 

I am currently immersed in re-writing and editing my resources for my forthcoming online course on Mindful Photography. Apart from honing my ideas and explaining how photography can help you to develop a mindful approach to life I will be sharing more than 20 mindful photography practices.

Each one of the practices is an activity designed to either apply mindfulness to the art and science of photography, or to support you to develop your own mindful life. Within this exploration of life and photography there is an opportunity to become more familiar with who and how you are. There is a mindful photography practice I will share here that can support you on this exploration.

What happens when we practice mindfulness?

When we practice mindfulness, be it simply sitting for meditation, following a mindful movement practice like yoga or engaging in a mindful photography practice, we have the potential to notice what our mind is doing. Many people new to mindfulness have an expectation that it will help them respond skillfully, rather than react habitually, to the stress in their lives. This is true it will, but there is more to be aware of.

As we focus upon just doing one thing we begin to notice how busy and noisy our mind is. As we continue to practice over many days and months this experience allows us to become more aware of our mind’s habitual thinking. It is quite possible, even likely, that the more we practice the more older thoughts and feelings will arise.

These previously well buried thoughts and feelings emerge into the space and quietness that we have created. And we may find this very uncomfortable. I have a mindful photography practice I am going to share here that may help you hold this experience with gentleness, as you move towards acceptance of what you are experiencing.

Mindful Photography practice – 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 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 shooting 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 of use please share with your friends.

The photos accompanying this post were taken when I was experiencing difficulty with major changes in my life

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I have just got back from a few days in the glorious English countryside; Holton in Somerset to be precise. This is a small little village about 7 miles from Wincanton. Not that I was actually in the village. I was about 1/2 mile outside the metropolis, house and pet sitting.

My main charge was Chiecco (pronounced Checko), a young energetic black labrador who ensured that I got out and about at least twice a day. Most of the rest of the time I spent writing and editing my planned book on Mindful Photography.

Some solid progress was made. I have re-structured the content, dumped a lot of the autobiographical stories and re-written much of the second half. I have almost completed 6 out of the 7 planned chapters, which is more than I anticipated at the beginning of the process, and I am pleased with the way it is shaping up. I have not counted yet, but there must be around 20 or so photography practices, all of which are designed to encourage the development of mindfulness through photography.

The next stage will be sending it to reviewers and getting some feedback. So if you feel this is something that you would be interested in please contact me.

Whilst I was there I practised what I preach and the photos below are a selection of favourites from several mindful photography practices around the area.

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My thoughts of late have been much around how I can share more effectively what I have developed. It has taken me 55 years of living, a couple of years of development, an online course, live workshops and some significant life events to really bring my thinking on delivering mindfulness through photography – or Mindful Photography as I usually call it – into a coherent whole.

I now believe that I have reached a key point. I have several live workshop sessions I can now deliver anywhere, and I have three planned for September and October in Swansea, Porthcawl and Cardiff. I have an 8 week Mindful Photography Course planned and have started to approach private, public and third sector organisations with a view to delivering this course for their staff, volunteers or participants. This week and next I am re-visiting the work I have created to date on my Mindful Photography book and once I have completed a second draft I am hoping to re-develop an online course.

It remains a challenge to develop and deliver all of this whilst still working part time, but regular income is of course essential. Keeping all of this on track, whilst also working through personal challenges and falling in love provides rich territory for practice. I try to sit quietly once a day and also share my gratitudes for the day with my sister (in Canada). These are practices that keep me present with all that is passing through.

Lately, I have been reading a passage from a book just after I have sat. The book is called Perseverance by Margaret J Wheatley and she shares little vignettes and quotes a page at a time that build towards a way of living with challenge. This morning’s offering included this quote below which summarises clearly how I believe our life is, and it is also enlivening to see yourself as a warrior. In fact, I imagine that I am a spiritual warrior and that my offering of Mindful Photography is my way of sharing that potential with the rest of the world.

“The basic difference between and ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, whilst an ordinary person takes everything as a blessing or a curse.”

Don Juan, Carlos Casteneda