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Evolution

The feeling of an evolution is a constant for every artist who is pursuing the search of refinement and enlargement of his/her own means of expression.

Andrea Bocelli

Living a mindful life encourages an attention to the moment, a paying attention that inspires the development of skillful responses to difficulty rather than an habitual reaction. The wisdom that underpins this is hard won: a product of falling over many times, noticing what caused the fall and then getting back up hopeful that the next time an enlightened response will emerge.

I have learnt over several years that there is a complementary, contemplative partner to this intention. Creating space and quiet to allow periods of reflection supports the embedding of my hard won wisdom. As I have mentioned in previous blogs I irregularly do this on retreat in the Brecon Hills, but recently I have also recognised that there is a simpler, more integrative version I can create in my life.

Both the retreat and the simpler version allow two things to happen. On a conscious level I can reflect and consider what I have been doing over the last few months, what has worked, what hasn’t and then look at what is emerging in the near future that may provide opportunity. On a subconscious level creating space and not thinking about the past and future, just sitting with how the day is and what is in front of me, provides opportunity for deeper understanding and connections to develop.

This simpler version is a slowing down or a stopping of all the doing: all the striving to achieve, complete and develop the next thing. The activity that is driven by the judging mind. The mind that queries whether what you are doing is enough, whether it’s good enough and whether you will have enough. In the slowing down, in paying attention to slowing down and in then moving towards doing less or actually stopping there is the potential for a freedom. Sure that voice may still be heard, but I just endeavour to notice it, breathe, attend to the space and the feelings that emerge beyond that judging mind.

This is a mindful practice itself. Choosing to honour it over the last two months has I believe allowed understanding, certainty and ideas to emerge. An evolution in my creative practice has become known to me.

Evolving Creative Practice

I first became serious about photography 11 years ago. Around the same time I also started exploring Mindfulness. In 2013 I started looking at how to combine them. Now I know what Mindful Photography is, how it can support my life and more importantly how it can support your’s.

This has been a creative evolution. I know it has not been quick and I know that it is ongoing. However, the place I find myself now is one of clarity and certainty. I now know what my creative purpose is and how to make the next step. Beyond that it is still an adventure, but that’s just as it should be.

I have over the last 4 years been writing a book about Mindful Photography. In its early drafts this was part memoir and wholly how mindfulness and photography could work together to enable you to create personal, resonant photos. I was never able to complete the book. I always felt like there was something missing. I knew that much of the content showed an original approach to photography and also started to address how to live a mindful life, supported by a creative outlet. But it just felt a little off and I couldn’t see how to finish it.

Instead, I put it to one side and created an Online Course from some of the content. That launched a year ago and I sold a few courses over Europe and North America. Although it was competent and detailed I never felt that it was quite the thing I needed to be doing. It never truly resonated.

Over the last year I also started teaching Mindful Photography to people who were recovering from Brain Injury. I did this through my two courses; ‘Foundation Skills’ and ‘Exploring Life’. It was this experience that fundamentally shifted my understanding of what I was doing and why.

Delivering learning and supporting people who were living through great change in their life helped me to realise that Mindful Photography was a fantastic resource. It has the potential to enable everyone to explore and understand what has happened in their life and then support them to move towards an acceptance of who they are now.

When any of us experience significant loss it can shake up our world and who we think we are in it. We can be attached to who we were before the loss and not realise that our world has changed so much that we are no longer quite the same person. The loss leads to grieving, whatever that loss might be. The grieving may follow the path of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but in its early days we not even be aware what is happening.

Working with people who were living through the Grief Cycle made me realise that Mindful Photography could provide a way of exploring how life was now, of expressing through photos how they felt and therefore of supporting the processing of the massive change that they were living though.

It was only when I stopped striving, limited my creative doing, just did what was necessary and gave it all a break that this realisation dawned. I now know what my creative purpose is. Through sharing Mindful Photography I can help people live through major life change. I have a focus for my book and working life. The working title of the book is ‘Who Am I Now? – Using Mindful Photography to live authentically through major life change’. This has changed my understanding of who the book is for and of who I am working for.

This understanding has immediately born other fruit. I now have a clear appreciation of the kind of photos I want to create. I want to create photos of people who are living through major change, after a significant loss. I envision a series of diptychs, each two photos side by side. One that represents the subject’s life before the loss, and one the illustrates who and how they are now. Each photo will explore the multiple layers of self and each will reflect upon the other.

The project fits so seamlessly into my other creative work I wonder how I did not see the possibility before. Really, I know. I was too wrapped up in the world, to engaged in the doing to see the potential creative arc. Now it is visible and known, it seems like it was always there. The benefit of creating some reflective space has been cathartic and significant for me. How could it benefit you?

 

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I’m a Square Peg

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs

Let me be honest here. I do believe that I can change the world. There I have said it. I don’t see this bold statement as egotistical, the belief comes from a deeper place than that. It is something I have felt for many years. It predates my major change of life several years ago. I felt it when I imagined I could do it from inside the machine. It was only being spat out that provided the circumstances and the experience for the basis of this work. Now many years down the line, after several slow steps along the way to an understanding, I find myself at a place where I know what I need to do.

Many of you will know that this exploration of Mindful Photography I have been living this past five years is more than just a means of self expression, it has also been the practice that has supported my positive acceptance of the new world that has become my life post acute health crisis. It is this knowing that forms the basis of how I would like to change the world.

Change the world

You may be familiar with the Mindful Photography work I have been doing with Brain Injury patients over the last 7 years. Most recently this has included two 8 week courses with one group that culminated in the Course “Who Am I Now“.

This latter course specifically supports people who have experienced significant loss or great change to understand what they are living through and move towards a positive acceptance of who they are after this momentous life event. The courses have been particularly well received by patients and staff and we have three more scheduled.

During the last course we were also visited by staff from the Welsh Burns Unit, who see how the course could benefit their patients. They are currently considering how they could fund the work.

Delivering this course made me realise that this is the work I was born to do. I have the experience of living through great loss, finding the adjustment to the new version of myself to be close to impossible, and then finding a way that I could combine Mindfulness and Photography to live through, process and move towards a positive new life.

That I can now share methods to do this with others brings me great joy and significantly adds to my own wellbeing. Not only is the work to continue to deliver further courses, it has finally given shape to my desires to write a Mindful Photography book; the book I have had partly written for 4 drafts and 3 years now has a clear purpose and audience.

The work will also form the basis of a collaborative Photography Project with others who are working though the same process after their own significant loss.

How do I know I can change the world? I already have. Don’t just take my word for it, here’s feedback from a student on my last course.

“The course has helped me to begin to accept what has happened – it’s not bad, but a challenge. To open up to others, my thoughts and feelings through the photographs I have created.

I have learnt that I am not alone. I am in a group where I feel safe and secure. That I can relax, breathe and create beautiful, meaningful photographs. That I find peace and mindfulness in the little things.”

NB. The photo is from one of my favourite cafés in Swansea called Square Peg! It’s where I first saw the Steve Job’s quote at the top of the page.  They serve great tea.

 

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Sunset Afterglow

I couldn’t let this opportunity pass without sharing a Rise/Set photo I created at a mindful photography workshop a few years ago.

I had booked the space, date and time in Llanmadoc on the Gower Peninsula in late September in the hope that we would be blessed with a great sunset. The reality exceeded my expectations providing one of those sunsets where the afterglow colours remind you of the unforgetable artistry that nature can provide.

Llanmadoc Beach faces west and America so the sunset was directly behind the retreating tide. This low tide also provided the opportunities for reflections of the swooning colours in the water sitting on the smooth slick sand. I decided to create something a little different, using a tripod, a low ISO and a slow shutter speed I slowly swept the camera through the horizon and back, creating the finished blurred effect. The colours are as close to the reality as my ability, recollection and software allows. I’m sure that nature’s reality was even more spectacular.

As a footnote it is interesting to reflect how this photo has come to symbolise my work in mindful photography, being used throughout this website, my business card and course promotion material. I even have a spectacular large print framed in my lounge. It has grown to represent this adventure in mindful photography I am currently living.

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Understanding how mindful photography can help

This article comes from a desire to share how I use mindful photography to support an intention to live a mindful life. It is an accompanying piece to my last post Accepting Difficulty and considers how a mindful photography practice can be my intention.

Practice

Over the last two years I have slowly come to the realisation that it is life that is the practice. Every aspect, every element, every event, every difficulty provides opportunity to be with how it is and respond skillfully. That is for me, the heart of mindfulness. It is not just a practice, but a way of life. The practice is life. Life is the practice.

It is helpful to relect back on a current definition of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgement. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.” Sharon Saltzburg

Sharon Saltzburg perfectly distils it down in that final sentence. ‘Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.’ The ability to do this, to be this way, is born from daily meditation practice and a commitment to pay attention to each moment of the day.

It is the paying attention that is difficult to maintain. Meditation is the training ground. We sit and we pay attention to our mind leaping about. We use an anchor (breath, sound, sight) to come back to ourselves in the moment.

Modern scientific understanding of the brain’s functioning helps us to understand how meditation creates neural pathways which we can then use throughout our day to support our intention to pay attention. If you’re interested in this concept take a look at this simple explanation of neural plasticity

My own experience of meditation and mindfulness echoes this. I have had a daily practice for more than 5 years. Before that I meditated 3 or 4 times a week for 7 years. Only in the last 3 years have I started to notice it infiltrating the rest of my life, as I have slowly developed the ability to pay attention more often in the rest of my life.

Of course, I regularly fail. I fall back into old behaviours, habits and ways of thinking. I know why; those neural pathways have been around longer. I often liken them to motorways. I’m used to using them and they get me places quickly. Or so I imagine.

The intention to practice paying attention throughout my life has a simple goal. Sharon Salzburg called it creating space for insight. Another Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, talks about us developing the ability to respond skillfully, rather than reacting habitually. I intend to continue to develop my ability to be with each moment, fully accepting how it is and responding skillfully. That is the life practice!

So if that is the intention how can a Mindful Photography Practice help?

Mindful Photography Practice

I meditate daily, walk mindfully occasionally and intend to follow a mindful photography practice once a week. Any activity can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to practice and develop the habit of paying attention. As Mr Kabat-Zinn says, “Applying mindfulness to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.”

I generally keep my practice simple and I’ll explain what I do and how now.

Camera and lens choice

Firstly, I always use the same camera and lens set up. I favour a prime lens that echoes how we normally see. A 50mm focal length or equivalent is the way to go. My current camera, the Fuji XT2 has a crop factor of 1.5. so a 35mm lens is equivalent to 52.5mm on a full frame sensor. Confused? get a simple explanation here….and then check out your camera a lens combination here. Warning: you’ll need to know your sensor size.

If you use a zoom lens that’s fine. You can carry on using it as is, or you could tape it up at the 50mm equivalent and just use one focal length. Why do this you ask?

If you use just one lens regularly and it is similar to how you see, it will support your ability to create photographs that are similar to what you see. Wide angle and telephoto lenses distort the photo. For me the essence of the mindful photography practice is to represent what I see and how I see it.

Camera set up

My regular set up is Aperture Priority with a mid range aperture as my walk about position and ISO appropriate for the light. The basic intention is to choose a simple set up from which I can create photo that represents what I see, that is exposed correctly and with a good depth of field. If I want to make creative choices about depth of field, focus, white balance etc I can do so mindfully from this position. After creating the photo I then return to the original camera set up.

Four Stage Seeing Practice

My own Four Stage Seeing Practice is the anchor for a mindful photography practice. This involves coming back to what I see every time I notice my mind has gone elsewhere, much in the same way as you return to the breath when meditating. The four stages are Anchor, Seeing, Resting and Creating. I explain them fully in my Online Course.

Time

I generally practice for an hour, choosing to walk around a location and just notice what I see. The heart of the practice is to not look for a photo opportunity. That may sound contrary. After all I do expect to create some photos. My suggestion to you is, don’t look for a photo, just observe what you see. The photo will come to you.

If you practice this regularly one day this simple instruction will become part of how you photograph and you will have established a mindful photography practice as part of your intention to live a mindful life. Until then keep practising!

 

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Accepting Difficulty

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

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

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

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

Recognising how things are

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

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

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

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

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

Recognising the thoughts and feelings

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

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

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

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

Making wise choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness and Creativity

“Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” Dorothy Parker

You are creative. It is in your DNA. It is in your soul. Every day you create. You may have a bright idea. You may invent a witty one liner. You may put together a fabulous meal from the meagre ingredients in your kitchen. You may just create a photograph. What is certain is that your capacity to make something from the moments or elements of something else is your birthright.

The problem with this is that you might not agree. You may equate creativity with art and you would not be wrong. Art is a creative practice, it is creativity as self expression, as invention, as entertainment, as solace, as celebration and as escapism. But because you equate creativity with art, and you were told in school that you were rubbish at drawing (or painting, or pottery, or sculpture….) you now believe that you are not creative, and that you are not an artist. Wrong, you are bursting with creativity, but it may be trapped behind a door. A door of disbelief, of doubt. Never fear I have the key and I am going to share it with you.

“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” Pablo Picasso

The Key

The key to unlocking your creativity is mindfulness. The quieter you become, the closer you move to your essence. The more centered and grounded you become the more present you become in your life. The more present you are the more access you have to your untapped well of creativity. It really is very simple! Simple to explain, if not quite so simple to achieve. Let’s start with mindfulness.

What really is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to this moment without judgement. That is all fine and dandy but what is really going on?

Mindfulness is a 2500 year old suggestion. A suggestion that if you pay attention to your life, your sensations, your thoughts and your feelings you will have taken the first step towards relieving your suffering. Stay with me here! You suffer. I suffer. We all suffer because we believe that life should be a certain way and quite often it is not. Our most common critical judgement of our life is, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I hate this’. Then we suffer.

Mindfulness provides a huge challenge. I asks you to be with how things are, not how you would like them to be. That doesn’t mean that you don’t make changes or decisions that would improve your circumstances, but that where you don’t have those options you work towards accepting how things really are. I asks you to be aware of the glory, the grime, the liking, the disliking and to notice your thoughts. Particularly those judgmental ones that often involve the words good and bad.

Mindfulness asks you to notice how you react to how the world is. To notice the behaviours, the habits, to notice your way of being. All without judgement. See, simple to explain, but anything but simple to live.

You mind is often all over the place. Thoughts run amok (it’s probably happening now as you read this) Feelings fire off across your consciousness with no direction from you. All mindfulness suggests is that you become aware That you pay attention to what your mind is doing. For in the paying attention there is the possibility of noticing how you are, of being totally present with your experience and therefore of responding skillfully (and of accessing your creativity) rather than reacting habitually. So how do you do this?

How do you pay attention?

Training. Your mind, being used to your busy life, is very active. It is unfettered, running amok amongst your memories, your hopes and fears. It is a feral beast and it needs training. Meditation is the training. Other mindful practices are the training. Every activity conducted mindfully (yoga, tai chi, photography, walking, eating chocolate cake – yes even that could be a mindful practice, see its not all dull!) requires concentration.

Concentration is the backbone of meditation and other mindful activities. When meditating you may start by focusing on your breath, feeling its movement in your body at your nose or in your belly. Each breath in receives a count. 1 in, then 1 out. 2 in, then 2 out. Up to 10. Then you start again

As you practice you may notice your mind, all on its own shoot about, generating thoughts as if from nowhere. You notice and you return to the breath, to the count. This takes ongoing concentration. It’s very easy to get lost in a thought and to loose the count. All that is required is to start again…….and again…..and again…..

The Practice

Meditation is a practice. Mindfulness is a practice. A regular commitment to meditation and other mindful practices bears fruit in other areas of your life. Almost unnoticed your ability to be present and aware deepens in your everyday moments. This is because your practice has burned new neural pathways in your mind. By meditating you are re-wiring your mind and it is going to change your world – slowly, eventually!

What happens is that imperceptibly over many years your ability to concentrate, and then to be present deepens. At some point you do not need to count. At some point you become the breath. At some point you totally inhabit the moment. You are part of the moment, part of the universe, part of everything. Of course you always were, you just forget, wrapped up in your own world.

In the moment that you become part of the whole you know that your creativity is limitless. You know that you can create, that you are creation. All you have to do is to be quiet, to be aware, to be. Mindfulness is the key to creativity.

“The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.” Leonardo da Vinci

Does growth exist?

Does growth exist? Beyond the physical development of our youth, is ongoing personal development a possibility or is everything we already can be present and we only have to realise its presence?

This latter point of view was raised by a friend of mine in a discussion about personal growth. He argued that we were already everything we could be, and that that which we call growth (in the west) is actually just a realisation of something we always were. He went on to say that all that we are is present at birth and that we just had to discover its presence for this truth to emerge.

My immediate reaction to this was, ‘That’s ridiculous’. We experience personal development and growth in response to challenging circumstances, new experiences, formal and informal learning and the assimilation of a number of these thing together over a period of years. Some call this wisdom.

I believe his viewpoint was that whatever we believed the cause was that the ‘development’ was always part of us. The event, circumstances or learning was merely the doorway to that part of ourselves.

Do you know what? I don’t think it really matters how we interpret this aspect of life. Perhaps those two viewpoints are just different ways of describing the same thing and the most important aspect of living is that we pay attention to the opportunities, happenings and make wise choices. What emerges from those choices is what it is.

Planning and Life’s Events

At this time of year the idea of growth (both nature’s and our own personal development) is often on our minds. The idea that we are starting a New Year provides the possibility that we could re-evaluate some of our usual choices, make some wiser decisions and maybe some degree of personal growth will emerge.

I do believe that a regular reflection upon how you are living and what choices you could make to be an even better version of who you are (or open more of those doorways) is a positive strategy for living well. Some commit to New Year’s resolutions. Others plan their year ahead. I have in previous years followed the latter path and have committed to a thorough review of the previous year before anticipating the year to come and developing a loose plan for the achievement of all that I desire!

This year I started the same process (it would have been the 5th year in a row) but it just did not feel right. Instead I sat and reflected upon this feeling, waiting for some wisdom to emerge. Somehow a conclusion suggested itself; distill this planning to a list of priorities. Priorities that I could use whenever I was unclear of the way forward or had a decision to make. I could then look at the list and ask myself what decision, action or choice would best support the achievement of one of these priorities.

I had started to do something similar towards the end of 2017. I know that it seems to support me, but I also recognise that regular evaluation of both the priorities and how I am living is an essential part of the process. Will it result in personal growth? Who knows? Check back here next year!

The Photos

The photos are all favourites I created whilst I was dog sitting three enormous Labradoodles in Lee-on-the-Solent in between Christmas and New Year. My decision to go there was almost entirely based upon the name of the town!

They exhibit my usual style and sense of humour, but also remind me that professional development in photography is also still desirable. Currently that possibility is in exploring the potential of multiple exposures, all created in camera.

 

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(Not) Serene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”

Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

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My Path

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

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

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

Following the path

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Cacophony revisited

In June 2016 I took part in the Edinburgh Photomarathon. It was a tricky competition as we were given disposable film cameras with only 12 exposures possible.

If you’ve taken part in any photomarathon you will know that you get given a number of topics, usually the same number of hours and have to produce one photo for each topic.

With a digital camera this is easier as you can practice, reframe, delete and create as many as you like before settling on one that you feel meets the brief. With a film camera you just have one shot, one attempt and limited creative control.

So when topic 4 was revealed to be
Cacophony my immediate thought was, ‘What the hell will I do with that?’ Kim (gf at time) and I headed towards Waverley Station, thinking well it’s bloomin’ noisy there, perhaps we’ll get ideas when we’re there.

As we approached the station I noticed a group of women, boisterous and all dressed similarly walking down the hill. ‘Hen do,’ I thought and imagined that they would be up for acting up and noisily for the camera!

After chatting to them to explain what was going on and establish that they were up for it, I explained that I was going to lie on the floor and that I wanted them to lean over and, on the count three, shout uproariously at me.

I had realised that I needed to fire the flash as well, as the sky was quite bright and otherwise they would have been in silhouette. I explained I only had one chance to get it right and counted down….. and they went for it!

My only disappointment was that the photo did not win the topic category as I felt not only was it cacophonous, but that it was also technically and compositionally tricky. Ah well, another opportunity to practice living with disappointment!

4 – Cacophony

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15 tips for your next retreat

I try to schedule 3 retreats a year. These are a time when my intention is to slow down and be present. I sometimes have a goal, often something creative, but the intention is the foundation.

There are all types of retreat possible, but at the heart of any ‘spiritual’ retreat is “a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation” (Oxford Dictionary). It is possible to do guided retreats with others or choose solitude. Many retreat centres welcome all faiths and beliefs, whether you consider yourself a participant in that belief system or just want to be somewhere peaceful and safe.

I choose to follow a solitude retreat at Llannwerchwen Retreat Centre. This centre is situated in the hills north of Brecon, Wales and is run by a Catholic order. Whilst they do offer support and guidance they also welcome everybody to use the space and accommodation for solitude retreats. I only ever see the people running the centre at the beginning and end of the retreat.

I have visited many times over the last ten years. I have witnessed the bare bones of winter and sneezed through the vibrancy of spring. I have been sunburnt in high summer and most recently experienced the onset of autumn. Each visit brings a different experience. Some of those experiences are coloured by the accommodation allocated, its view and feel. Others are influenced by what is on my mind when I arrive, but always they are shaped by the choices I make whilst I am there.

So I thought I would share a few ideas that I believe help support the possibility of a beneficial (solitude) retreat. This knowledge has been gained the hard way! For every tip below I have done the opposite. I don’t claim that the list is perfect, every experience will still be different, but these tips support the potential for an enriching experience.

15 Tips for a beneficial (solitude) retreat

  1. Set an intention. This is best kept simple. For example, to slow down or to be completely quiet. It is not a goal – something you have to achieve – this is to be a way of being whilst you are on retreat.
  2. Turn your smartphone to airplane mode. Set the ‘vacation responses’ on your email and text and still be able to access those talks by wise guides that you have pre-saved. It will remain a temptation to switch back on, but all aspects of a retreat require discipline, this is just one other. The hardcore alternative is to leave your phone in the car or at home!
  3. Be self sufficient. Bring with you all the food, drink, toiletries, reading material, arts equipment and other props that you require. But be lean with your choices, always ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’
  4. Don’t drive anywhere. Leave your car in the car park
  5. Exercise. Walk in nature, slowly paying attention to the sensations you experience. Do gentle yoga.
  6. Meditate. Commit to a regular meditation practice (maybe morning and night) and integrate other mindful practices: walking, washing up, art, photography. Centre upon the development of concentration.
  7. Get creative. Take the materials for a creative outlet. The quieter and more rested you get the more likely your creativity will be sparked. Try painting, drawing, colouring, sketching, writing or photography. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
  8. Eat well. Cook wholesome fresh food with quality ingredients. Use the preparation, cooking and eating as a mindful practice.
  9. Contemplate. Sit in nature or in your accommodation in complete silence doing nothing, maybe enjoying a hot mug of your favourite beverage.
  10. Limit sound. Choose whether your retreat will be in complete silence or if you will be supported by dharma talks or similar. Try not talk to yourself (out loud or in your head). This is particularly difficult initially.
  11. Take with you…. A flask, water bottle, pens, paper, colours, camera, inspirational reading, appropriate seasonal footwear. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
  12. Pay attention to how you are each day. Be aware of your sensations, your thoughts and your feelings. These will guide wise choices.
  13. Read (if you have to) that which will support your intention. Not material that will agitate.
  14. Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate for your experience. Everything is possible. It is all passing through.
  15. Ease in and out of the retreat. Think about how the phases before and after can support your experience.

Here are a few of my favourite photos from my recent retreat

 

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Beginner’s Mind Practice

The phrase ‘beginner’s mind’ is used in meditation and mindfulness as an encouragement to greet the present moment as if it was the first time we had experienced it. Of course it is, but we don’t often live as if it is.

When we are sat, meditating, the object of this intention is often the breath. To sit and experience the breath as if for the first time is to alert our senses to where and how we feel the breath in our body.

Its cool entry at our nose. The gentle rise and fall of our stomach. The subtle expansion of our chest. The sharpening of our senses brings us into the experience and roots us in the present moment. To expand this practice into other areas of our day and life supports our intention to be mindful.

Developing Beginner’s Mind

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

The very essence of this practice brings us into the moment, encouraging our presence with our current experience.

In photography this can be explored as part of a mindful photography practice. There are two potential approaches. Either we visit a place/location that is completely new to us or we cultivate our ‘Beginner’s Eye’ by visiting familiar territory. Both approaches provide the opportunity to cultivate a grounding in the present moment. To see what we see as if for the first time. Perhaps the latter practice, on familiar territory, provides deeper opportunities to cultivate a gratitude for the familiar; to ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’ (John Updike). Something that we can then take into other aspects of our life.

Beach walk

Last week, over two days, I set out on my morning walk with my favourite hound, Monty with an intention. I decided to walk along a familiar location and practice seeing it as if for the first time, which of course in an important way it was.

I set out for Swansea Beach. This is a 5 mile crescent sweep of sandy bay that is 5 minutes from my front door. Such proximity has led to many visits over the years and it is a key part of my favourite circular walk from the house. It is an ideal location to follow this practice.

When you regularly visit the same location you become accustomed to what you expect to see. This can lead to a low attention, to not seeing what is there and a looseness with the present moment. I decided to follow the Mindful Photography Practice I share below. To slow down, to connect with the visual and be present in my day. My favourite photos from the two practices accompany this post.

A Mindful Photography Practice – Beginner’s Eye

  • Choose a familiar location
  • Spend up to 60 minutes slowly walking through this area, tuned into your visual experience
  • During the walk stop and sit. Breathe slowly. Pay attention to what you can see. Create some photos.
  • Continue walking
  • Tune into the colours, the shapes, patterns, lines and textures rather than the named objects
  • Create photos that represent your experience
  • Share your favourite photos