Boredom

Boredom is an experience that is avoided. The distractions available are numerous: smartphone, TV, work, household chores and friends are but a few. But how would it be to experience boredom by choice?

I wrote this post whilst I was on what was planned to be a 3 day retreat in the farmland hills above the Welsh market town of Brecon. I have spent many retreat breaks over the last 8 years at the centre at Llannerchwen. It is very quiet, in beautiful rolling wooded hills and visited by pheasants, rabbits, hawks and much more. But it is my experience that every retreat is different; the external landscape changes with the season, and my internal landscape changes both with season and its own rhythms .

It was on my mind that there would be opportunity to experience boredom, even though I had brought books, podcasts and my camera. And so I chose to sit on the cabin’s most comfortable chair and gaze through the large patio doors at the dank welsh countryside, and I notice.

I notice the voice; my internal commentator suggesting I do this, or that. It is a quiet insistent voice, no doubt fueled by my normal behaviour, which in turn has been shaped by our doing culture. Stopping for a while, not reading, not even meditating is an enlightening experience. The voice is very strong. This post is a product of its insistent suggestions. But in between the activity, the doing tasks, there is space to notice.

I have sat for a while – not timed – and observed. I notice the movements outside my window; the thrushes fighting over territory, the occasional rabbit foraging through the bronze bracken, and the last leaves from the long passed Autumn clinging on to tributary branches.

In between the visual stimulation I notice my mind’s habits. Thoughts of action and activity wander in and beckon in an alluring manner, like an old friend suggesting a visit to a favourite haunt. I note the thought and go back to the visual. This is a cultivated habit from my mindful photography, but the thoughts are relentless. Like the waves they return again and again.

I know that the practice is in the noting and not reacting. In honouring the thought or associated feeling and returning to the moment. This is itself a mindful practice and is part of the reason I am here, cultivating the habit of paying attention. Why do I do this? I am choosing to re-wire my brain. This is how Dr Barbara Mariposa explains it in ‘The Mindfulness Playbook’

“The brain changes shape according to how you use it. We can intentionally change our brain and nervous system for the better. Regularly using mindful (activities) the prefrontal cortex increases in size and activity……..promoting greater self awareness, the essential building block for emotional intelligence. We are giving ourselves a mental and emotional upgrade.”

Stopping and noticing provides the opportunity to connect to a fundamental truth; “I am not my thoughts. I have thoughts.” Dr B Mariposa

So I will stop this activity now and return to my boredom, my observation of how I am. But I will leave you with a supportive mindful photography practice that I will complete my self later. (The photo with the post is the product of the practice)

Mindful Photography Practice – Boredom

  1. Imagine that you can only create one photograph
  2. Take yourself and your camera out to a quiet location where you will not be disturbed.
  3. Set your camera to a mode that you are comfortable with and requires little technical photographic thought from you.
  4. Turn off (or cover) the review screen.
  5. Sit at your location and pay attention to your mind
  6. Notice the thoughts. Recognise the feelings that arise. Do nothing, just sit. Sit for at least 20 minutes before you even pick up your camera, but notice your drive to complete the task, the consideration of your space and its photographic opportunities.
  7. Create one photograph. You can move to do this. Do not look at it. Just sit and notice your thoughts
  8. After a while go home. Sit quietly and look at your photo. What thoughts and feelings arise?
  9. Share it with me

Using photography to express how you feel

One of the key areas I explore in Mindful Photography is how mindfulness opens a door to a connection with your feelings, and how you can choose to communicate those feelings with photographs. The short answer to how you can do this is twofold. Firstly, develop a knowledge of how to apply visual design principles to convey an emotion or mood. Secondly, through allowing an intuitive response to what you photograph to inform your choice of how to frame your photo.

The long and detailed answer is part of the landscape I will explore in my forthcoming Mindful Photography Online Course. In the meantime I leave you with a question. How can you learn and hold all the technical and compostional ideas for great photography and also allow a connection to how you feel about the scene or experience before you? It is in your answer to this that you will create photographs that truly say something about you and your life.

By way of illustration I include here a few photos from my recent retreat in the Brecon Hills. How do they make you feel? Why do they stir those feelings in you? I will be reflecting on my retreat experience in a future post.

 

Patience

I am currently recovering from a cold. Nothing unusual about that, but as a consequence my mind is foggy and writing a blog post is challenging. Patience is the word that lept to mind. Patience Lee, it will all return. Then I had a simple idea. Why not share the excerpt from the Mindful Photography Book I am writing about patience. It’s a win win. You get a great article and a mindful photography practice, I don’t have to think (too much!) Here it is.

A Mindful Attitude – Patience

I believe that patience is the underpinning attitude of mindfulness. It is a quality that is both known and elusive. It is the place that allows us to rest in the moment and await the world’s unfolding. The challenge is that your mind, your life and your whole culturally shaped way of being impels you to do stuff.

This western world carries an implication that we are “ok” if you are completing a task or achieving an outcome. You may define yourself as, “good, ok or not bad” if you feel that you are purposeful, if you are doing something. Having a purpose for the day is a positive and life affirming experience. However, if you are to truly experience your activities in a non judgemental way, patience is the quality that allows you to fully integrate the experience.

Patience in the moment allows you to be with whatever the experience is. It allows you to rest with your sensory experience. To notice the thoughts that swirl and pass through your mind. To recognise the feelings that arise. With patience you rest with the present experience and don’t rush off to experience “better” ones.

This can be particularly true of “unpleasant” experiences. In these circumstances your coping mechanisms may include delusion (pretending or convincing yourself that the experience is not unpleasant), avoidance or distraction (not thinking about the experience, doing something else) or destruction (when you take action to remove or obliterate the experience!)

Patience is the attitude that allows you to rest in each and any moment. It allows each moment to unfold in its own time. In that space you can then know yourself by becoming attuned to the body’s responses and sensory information, by noticing the thoughts and feelings that arise in your consciousness. Patience supports the practice of being, or living holistically.

My development of a chronic health condition has provided ample opportunity to practice patience: patience with the immediate struggle to breathe; patience with the slow healing process; patience with my feelings of frustration, fear and anger; and patience with others reaction to me, their judgements, their behaviours and their inability to appreciate what is going on for me. Sometimes I imagined that I could be with all of it, that I was patient. Perhaps this was not patience, but numbness. Sometimes it was pure stoicism, a learnt behaviour from all those miles and miles pounding the roads enduring the discomfort, the pain and the desire to sit down.

My experience tells me that true patience, rather than numbness or stoicism, comes hand in hand with understanding and acceptance of the situation. And that is the lifetime practice and at the heart of my book.

 As applied to photography

Patience supports your development as a mindful photographer. You need to be patient in the moment of creating a photograph. When you bring the camera up to your eye to compose and press the shutter there is a drive fuelling your action. This drive is the same one that impels you to keep doing stuff in your life. It is the drive to capture the moment in a “good” photograph. You believe that your purpose in that moment is to create a photograph. It is more than this.

All of the processes, thoughts and actions that are necessary to create a photograph – from learning all the technical and compositional theories, to truly seeing all that is front of us (the shapes, colours, patterns etc) – are just part of the process. You need to be patient over many days, weeks and years as you acquire and deepen this knowledge. You then need, in the moment of pressing the shutter, to let all of the associated photographic ideas and thoughts to wash over you, to release the drive and just be with the experience.

Only then, in a quiet and connected place, will you instinctively reflect your inner experience in your outward view (the photograph). Perhaps this is better explained by a master of the art.

“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

Patience forms the loving hands that embrace your desire to create personal resonant photographs of your world.

A Mindful Photography Practice 8 – Just Sit

The purpose of this practice is to develop patience. Choose a location and scenario to photograph where the creation of a personally resonant photograph will require patience. Here are a few examples

  • A sunrise – getting up super early, getting to the location in plenty of time, sitting and waiting. Create photographs throughout the sunrise.
  • A technical aspect of photography that you find challenging. This could include panning, intentional camera movement, night time light trails, freezing fast moving objects eg sport, nature.
  • A portrait photograph of someone you know but find challenging (patience with your feelings of discomfort)
  • A sunny day moving shadow. Choose a location where a shadow of an object is cast. Set up in a fixed spot, use a tripod if you have one. Sit next to the camera and create one photograph every 20 minutes. Only sit, wait and observe for each 20 minutes; no reading, no smartphone, do nothing. Just be present.

Guest Post by Alan Wood

The following post has been generously shared by Alan Wood and details his own exploration of mindfulness and photography

A Personal Journey to Mindful Photography by Alan Wood

I have been a photographer since, as a child of 7 or 8, my grandfather gave me his box Brownie camera. Over time other cameras followed but I eventually found that work and then family commitments were such that there was very little time, or perhaps energy, for actual photography. But I did read books and magazines about photography, its equipment and techniques. I would daydream of being like my photographic heroes, going where they went and capturing the sort of images they did. However, when I did get out with my camera the reality seldom lived up to the dream and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was frequently disappointed with the results. I became increasingly frustrated until, after many years, there came a moment of crisis.

I was on holiday in Devon, out for an early morning walk with my camera before the rest of the family woke up. I stood on a footbridge across a stream in a beautiful wooded valley trying to find a composition for a photograph. But my mind was in turmoil, thinking, thinking, thinking about the camera, its settings, the lens to use and the right technique, and beyond that to where I was going to go next, what I was going to have for breakfast when I got back and on and on. I felt as if I were not really there, completely separated from my surroundings. Even the camera in my hand seemed to have become a physical and mental barrier to my being able to see the reality of what was in front of me. The frustration became unbearable. I stopped and there and then vowed that I would not take another photograph until I learnt to see and to be truly present with what I was seeing. I kept that vow. I put my camera away and also stopped reading the photographic books and magazines through which I seemed to have been living vicariously.

There was of course more going on in my life. The relentless pressure of my work, amongst other things, brought me close to breaking point. Then, one day during a lunchtime browse through a bookshop, I came across a book, called “Teach Yourself to Meditate” by Eric Harrison. On the back cover I read “Many people are turning to meditation as an effective way to relax and bring inner peace.” I thought that I could certainly do with some of that and bought the book. I soon established a practice of daily meditation. I would get up early and in the quiet of the morning sit for 20 minutes, following the breath as my focus. I quickly found it invaluable as a means of calming the mind and becoming grounded and ready for the day ahead (although I have since discovered that meditation goes much further than that).

After a couple of years I decided I would like to go on a meditation retreat. That brought me to Gaia House, a retreat centre in the Devon countryside for my first silent retreat. I was nervous to start with, fearful in case my self taught meditation practice was wide of the mark. Fortunately it wasn’t and I benefited from the deepening of my practice. There then followed further retreats including a one month silent retreat attended during a sabbatical from work, a prelude to a run down and eventual early retirement.

Influenced by my meditation practice, I was finding that I could now go for a walk and, being mindful, see and experience more directly what was around me, aware too of my emotional response, to be present in my surroundings.

I wondered then if I was ready to pick up my camera again. I did and tentatively started to re-engage with my photography. The camera no longer appeared to be a barrier to seeing and I found that I was able, not only to use the camera to reflect something of my response to what I was seeing, but also to be more focussed on that seeing and to be more deeply engaged with it. I am grateful for that and am enjoying my photography more than I have ever done. I don’t see the final image so much as a goal in itself (although I do get a sense of satisfaction if I produce an image with which I am happy and if that image is appreciated by others) but rather as part of a process from the mindful seeing, responding and then using the camera and even the post processing on the computer to reflect that response.

I am now at a point where, as well as it being a reflection of my response to what I see, I would like to use my photography to explore how my inner world affects that seeing. And who knows where that will take me.

Below are three simple images from one of my retreats which I feel reflect something of my emotional response to the seeing.

Balance

Balance is not only a key part of photographic composition it is a key element in life. How do you keep your life in balance whilst the world appears to be going a little crazy? How do you stop it all from becoming a little bit overwhelming? 2016 brought us Brexit and Trump. 2017 is sure to follow up on these massive changes. How do you keep your life in balance surrounded by media madness and major changes in your own life?

Change

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.

We do seem to be living through a period of tremendous change. Many people feel personally affected by these worldwide changes. You may also have major change playing out through your life right now. Is a balanced approach the way forward? If so how can we develop one?

When change happens we often feel uncomfortable, uneasy or plain scared. This is particularly relevant if the change is unexpected, but can be just as difficult or challenging if it is planned – like a house move or ending a relationship.

When change manifests in your life you react. This reaction is driven by your patterns of thinking. It is influenced by the messages you have received throughout your life from others and the messages you tell yourself. This can often include negative statements like you’re not good enough, or simple derogatory name calling! Either way it is a product of habitual thinking. You are used to thinking a certain way.

The good news is that this can be changed. Every pattern of thinking, every habit can be changed. They are just neurons in your mind that have got used to following a certain path. All you have to do is re-wire them. I say ‘all you have to do’, of course it is not easy. Changing any habit is not easy, but it is possible and there is a way forward that encourages a skillful response rather than your habitual response.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” Donald Hebb 1949, Canadian neuropsychologist

Responding Skillfully 

What you need is a little space. Space to connect with what is going on for you. Space to notice how you feel. This is at the heart of mindfulness. Creating space, just being present and paying attention to how you are. Mindfulness, and the training you can do to develop a mindful life (that’s meditation!), provide the space; the moment for you to breathe and connect to how you are.

In the moment that the change first manifests STOP. Sit and notice your bottom on its seat and your feet on the floor. Breathe and notice what you are thinking, what you are feeling. Don’t follow the thought, worrying at it – like a dog with a bone! Come back to your breath. Notice how this change is making you feel physically. Check out your belly, your chest and your throat; these are the key areas where change that is stressful will play out. It may be that you have butterflies in your belly, or that your heart is pounding in your chest. Sit with the feeling, breathing into where you feel it.

As you do this thoughts and feelings will still play out. Return to the physical. Don’t follow your thoughts. Pay attention to your physical feelings. As they begin to fade stay with them. When the physical feelings dissipate return to your breathing. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the thoughts and feelings will soften and eventual dissolve. I know, they will return. This is a habitual thinking/feeling pattern. You will need to follow this practice again, and again, and again.

But that is why it is called a practice. You keep at it. Not expecting instant results. Not expecting to even get it right. There is no right. There is only the practice.

Why not watch and listen to an expert talk about this? Tara Brach’s talk on ‘Learning to respond not react’ is a great start.

Balance in life

This is just a beginning; a practice that can support you at the edges of change. What about the rest of the time as you pass through each day? Is a balanced life the way forward?

This is a question that is very much on my mind. It seems to me that finding a way to navigate this sea of change, so that I can continue to grow and develop to become the best possible version of myself, is both an intention and a commitment to a balanced life. It is one that requires that I pay attention to the challenges, my reactions and my responses. Following the practice I discussed above is strategy that can support me, but it is in noticing what happens when the old patterns reassert themselves that the growth and development is to be found.

I have recently had a couple of health wobbles. In each case (and every one before) the pattern of behaviour is the same. I am well. I gain in confidence in my stamina, abilities and ideas. I take on more. I get busy. Somewhere around this point there may be signals from my body that I am overstretched. Sometimes I notice and either back off or, more likely, I plough on. Most often I don’t even notice how I am. I am completely immersed in my activities.

I am also immersed in my pattern of behaviour. I am striving to do each activity, each task, to the best of my ability and there are many to be done. I strive to be effective, efficient and provide a high quality outcome. This is a positive drive, I get lots achieved, but its boundaries are transparent. My body eventually says ‘enough’, my breathing stumbles and I have to slow down or stop. And of course in the slowing down or stopping I have to let things go.

The trick is to notice the signals. Or to notice the pattern of behaviour. To check in to how I am feeling physically and mentally. This way of being is supported by practicing mediation and mindfulness. But both these and the change practice I described above are just that, practices. I know I will fall down. And when I fall down there is only one thing to do. Oh ok two things!

One: Get back up
Two: Pay attention to what happened and why

It is in the response to my failures that the greatest lessons are to be found. Living a balanced life is finding a way through opposite extremes of behaviour. Of knowing who I am and how I am. It requires that I pay attention to myself. For it is in the paying attention that the path between the mountains is revealed.

Developing the ability to pay attention is what mindfulness is all about. My tools are meditation, yoga, mindful photography practices and mindful attention to the one thing that I am doing. How do you navigate through your stormy sea of change?

Developing Mindfulness through Photography

Mindful Photography is mindfulness applied to the process of creating a photograph

Mindful Photography is mindfulness developed through photography. It starts with seeing clearly and extends through the technical and compositional choices, towards an encouragement to align your eye, your mind and your heart whilst you are completely present.

There is a lot to unpack in that definition, so let’s start at the beginning. Where does the term Mindful Photography come from?

If you enter the term into a popular search engine and review the sites that are presented you quickly come to a conclusion; it is being used by many people to mean different things. However, the general consensus is that Mindful Photography is the development of mindfulness through photography and strong identification is often made for its links with Buddhism. So let’s start there.

Contemplative Photography

When one first explores the idea of applying mindfulness to using a camera, the practice of contemplative photography becomes relevant. The main evolution of the practice of contemplative photography seems to have been through Buddhism.

Buddhism has a rich tradition of expressing wisdom and realisation through the arts and it seems that the Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche may have been the first to have used his camera as an exploration into clear seeing. This history is explained by Michael Wood (the co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes) on his website. He explains Buddhism’s connection with clear seeing thus,

“Buddhism is concerned with clear seeing because clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance. Attaining liberation from confusion and ignorance is Buddhism’s raison d’être. Clear seeing is a primary concern for the art of photography because clear seeing is the source of vivid, fresh images—photography’s raison d’être.”

Buddhism is not the only religious tradition to have seen the possibility of photography as contemplative, reflective tool. The book The Tao of Photography offers a Taoist approach, considering how photography and The Way can be mutually supportive.

I have also read Christian based explorations. In The Little book of Contemplative Photography Howard Zehr relates the Christian tradition of contemplation to clear seeing with a camera. Does that sound familiar?

Clear Seeing

One thing that all these explanations have in common is that it is the process of clear seeing that is central to being at one with the present moment; to connecting with what you are experiencing. When I practice Mindful Photography my first intention is to use what I see as my anchor. I walk, with my camera, observing the world. I am not looking for a photograph I am observing the visual panorama before me. Every time I notice that my mind has wandered into planning, reflecting or judging I come back to the seeing.

Then there will come a moment of visual stimulation, something will ‘catch my eye’. I stop and rest in that moment. I try to stay with what it was that stopped me, connecting to the visual nature of the scene.

Finally, I receive the photograph. This is achieved by creating the equivalent of what I see with my camera. I consider where to place the rectangular frame. Maybe I move in or zoom in, or both. It is almost inevitable that during this final stage my clear seeing will be influenced by barriers; these include photo thinking, excitement, conceptualisation and judgement. I notice these thoughts and return to the visual stimulation that first stopped me. Press the shutter and walk on.

How do we see clearly?

Those barriers to clear seeing each have a lot to them. Let’s start with conceptualisation as that has the clearest link to the process of seeing.

Your eyes see light. It is your mind that then makes sense of what you see. In micro seconds your mind assembles all that visual information and applies labels. Colours, three dimensional depth, form, shape, pattern and texture are identified and the objects are given names.

But your camera doesn’t see like that. It captures light, just a small rectangle (not the almost 180 degrees that you see) in two dimensions. It does not know what it is seeing. So to ‘create the equivalent’ of what stopped you in that moment of visual stimulation you need to see like a camera. Claude Monet explained this clearly.

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

In forgetting the name, or label, we start to see the light. Is that easy? Oh no, it takes practice, lots of practice. In fact as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of anything. This truth is fundamental to our development as Mindful Photographers particularly when we consider the photo thinking – the technical and compositional ideas that underpin successful photographs – that swirl about our mind when we are trying to see clearly.

I believe that Mindful Photography must build upon the foundations offered through contemplative photography. It must offer practices that support your intention to remain with your clear seeing, whilst all that photo thinking and emotional experience is occurring. As you develop as a photographer, as you learn the technical and compositional context, there are mindful photography techniques and practices that you can follow that will help: wherever you are on that journey of 10,000 hours.

What are these techniques and how can you learn them? Read on…

Mindful Photography Practices

I have created many activities that can help you to develop a mindful approach to life through your photography. I call these activities 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 your development of a mindful life through photography. Within this exploration of life and photography there is an opportunity to become more familiar with who and how you are.

What you need is an example! Here is an example of a mindful photography practice that will support you on this exploration.

What happens when you practice mindfulness?

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

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

These previously well buried thoughts and feelings emerge into the space and quietness that you have created. You 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 accepting 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 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.

10 reasons to embrace Mindful Photography

My top 10 reasons to embrace mindful photography are outlined below. These may stimulate more questions for you than they answer. Some of those will be explored in my forthcoming online course. In the meantime I am happy to answer any questions you may have, just use my website contact page.

1) Learn how to see like a camera – A camera does not know the name of anything in its viewfinder. It sees light. You can learn to see the light, but you must forget the name of things!

2) Use what you see as your anchor – In meditation the breath is often used as an anchor; the thing we return to when we notice sensations, thoughts or feelings playing out across our mind. In Mindful Photography we return to the seeing.

3) Develop your photography skills and knowledge whilst remaining connected to the visual feast before you -My online course will explain how you can use the visual feast before you to return to the present and create photographs that capture that moment.

4) Express how you are feeling with a photograph – Photography can be used to explore and represent emotional experiences that are current or past. It can be literal, metaphorical or symbolic. Or it can just be a photo of something that resonates for you.

5) Use photography as a vehicle for self enquiry – The more you practice mindfulness the more you discover about yourself. Photography can be used to explore your world and can act as the intermediary between your inner world and the outer one.

6) Cultivate your ability to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings through mindful photography practices This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges that mindfulness and meditation can support you with. Practicing mindfulness provides the opportunity and training to recognise the thoughts and feelings that are playing through your mind. There are mindful photography practices you can follow to support your intention to allow these to dissolve.  I provide these on my new online course.

7) Develop patience in your world through understanding and accepting your development as photographer The journey to mastery in any skill may take 10,000 hours (Malcom Gladwell in Outliers). There are mindful photography practices you can follow that support your development. These allow the quality of patience to develop as you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise in the process of learning your craft.

8) Develop your ability to see the world as if for the first time – A beginner’s mind is a mindful attitude. It is one that you can apply to the practice of creating photographs. If you choose to return regularly to the same location, to spend time slowly exploring the visual feast available you may begin to see beauty which once eluded you. At this familiar place you can practice “giving the mundane its beautiful due” as John Updike suggested. This ability, cultivated through mindful photography, can support you to look at your daily experience with fresh eyes.

9) Develop trust in your own feelings – If you are to create photographs that are personal, unique and authoritative then you must listen to your heart, as well as your head. You can learn to trust and follow your own intuitive guide. If you cultivate this skill through mindful photography practices it will begin to seep through to the rest of your world.

10) Bring mindfulness into another aspect of your life – Mindfulness does not have to be limited to the meditation cushion that is merely the training zone! As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.” By developing mindfulness through photography we expand our potential to be fully present in our life.

Don’t miss Developing Mindfulness through Photography Part 2

MBSR Week 6 – How is it going?

How it was

What follows below are my reflections from week 6 of the MBSR 18 months ago. After that I consider how the ideas and practice suggested have been applied (or not) since then.

Week 6 of the MBSR with CMWR in Swansea University centered on staying aware and balanced during stressful communication/relationships. The opportunity to practice mindfulness when we communicate with others is one that can support our effectiveness as communicators and the relationship itself.

The session focused initially on some practical steps. We started with a short sitting meditation to ground ourselves and then engaged in some listening exercises to experience what happens when we try to listen. Of course, whilst we are engaged in an exercise, ‘trying to listen’ we may be a little more tuned into the process than when we’re engaged in regular conversation.

Mindful conversations

Effective conversation requires us to talk and listen. During most conversations we are listening, but we are also plotting! Often we are engaged in a process of thinking about/judging what the other is saying and what we are going to say. So the first step in becoming more mindful in any conversation is to be aware that this is happening.

In a stressful conversation the thinking/judging may be heightened, our feelings (thoughts linked to an emotion) may be quite loud! Our opportunity is to become aware of this. To notice the thought, and perhaps to be aware of the fear that is generating it. These may be familiar thoughts (if the conversation is with a long term relationship partner) and familiar feelings. These may generate familiar thinking patterns and responses. The first step is to recognise that this has happened; maybe we are able to name the underpinning fear or habitual reaction (to ourselves).

In these moments it may be helpful to follow our breath in and out, to feel gravity in our body: our feet on the ground, our bottom on its seat. We may be able to tune in to the physical reactions the conversations is creating in our body. Our thoughts may generate reactions in the throat, chest or belly. If we can tune into this physical experience and we follow our breath, we can root ourselves in the present moment and give ourselves a little space to respond with understanding.

This practice bring us totally into the present moment, it may help us to be able to listen to the other with greater compassion, possibly even to understand their perspective. It will also support the opportunity to be aware of our feelings and to express them assertively, but without aggression. We may be able to say, ‘I feel so angry when you say that.’ Rather than, ‘You make me so angry.’

Mindful thinking

This is all easy to explain and even to understand theoretically . Applying it when we are engaged in deep conversation is challenging. Which is why mindfulness is called a practice. It may be helpful to actually practice noticing our thoughts and feelings. To engage in a meditation practice that has our mind’s events as its focus rather than the breath.

Here’s the practice.

  • Sit in your normal meditation pose.
  • Follow the breath for a few minutes until you are settled and present.
  • Let go of following the breath and just notice your mind.
  • Watch thoughts come to your attention. Don’t follow them, just watch them leave.
  • If you become lost in a thought, note it and return to the breath for a moment. Then return to observing your mind.
  • You may notice a pattern to your thoughts. Notice if they are linked to past or future events. You could even say to yourself, ‘past’, then return to your observing.
  • You may notice feelings, which are thoughts linked to an emotion. Note the feeling, maybe even observe any physical reactions to the feeling. Then return to your observing.

Other resources

Here’s an excellent article from Life Hack that offers Mindful conversation in 9 easy steps’

Here’s another one from Insanity Mind that offers a listening response technique that we practiced on the MBSR course. How to be more present: Mindful conversation’

How it is now

18 months on how mindful are my conversations? I’d say pretty present, but perhaps my fellow communicators should be asked! I do know that the practices suggested have had an impact in my deepening mindfulness generally and in the development of my approach to mindful photography.

Whilst I am aware of a broadening of mindfulness throughout my life I am also aware that I still forget to pay attention regularly. I occasionally forget things, miss things happening or zone out. However, I do more regularly catch this happening, and tune back in to the moment. It remains an ongoing practice and always will. It is a life practice and the attendant personal judgement when I do lose the moment is beginning to soften. I remain committed to the ongoing practice.

Mindful Photography

Ripples of these practices, ideas and intentions pass through my photography developments. In the last year I have written a book on the subject (to be shared during 2017) and I am currently developing my reinterpreted online course (live in Spring 2017).

In both the book and course I explain how similar practices can be integrated using your camera. Not so much the mindful conversation, of course, more the attention to the moment, and your thoughts and feelings experienced whilst you are creating photos.

Both photo thinking and present feelings are aspects of life that are an opportunity to develop mindfulness through the creation of a photograph. All will become clear this year. Stay tuned!

 

MBSR Week 5 – How is it going?

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.

New Year Reboot

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.

 

MBSR Week 4 – How is it going?

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!

MBSR Week 3 – How is it going?

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.

 

 

 

MBSR week 2: How is it going?

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.

 

MBSR week 1: How is it going?

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.

The Snapshot Girls

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?

alley beads cefnbryn-4029 cefnbryn-4030 dsc02792 img_7378 img_7714 shadows

 

The Photographic Flâneur

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.

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Cardiff Mindful Photography Workshop

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

Blue sky thinking, feeling and seeing

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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Fragile

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

Feeling your edge – learning to fly

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