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The River

From the Elders of the Hopi Nation

To my fellow swimmers:

Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift there are those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.

The River is a fine metaphor for this thing we call life. It has been used as such by many, to describe many of the stages and events through life. I’ve even used it to describe how meditation changes your life. The quote above I found in a fabulous book called Perseverance by Margaret Wheatley, which is a collection of ideas and thoughts that help you to remain present with how life is. The full poem is at the bottom of this post, but for now I’m gonna share a few thoughts upon this wet metaphor!

A Philosopher’s thoughts

Heraclitus (530 – 470 BC), the philosopher said that life is like a river. The peaks and troughs, pits and swirls, are all are part of the ride. Heraclitus, where he here to advise you might say, “Go with the flow. Enjoy the ride, as wild as it may be.”

Heraclitus observed that nature is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.

Heraclitus concluded that nature is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Like a life, the river flows ever onward.

However, the metaphor is taken further. The trickle that is the source of every river is related to the beginning of life. From there the river picks up speed, soon becoming a torrent of energy and change. Maybe a slower phase, maybe a meandering phase, maybe even an almost still phase where the pace is so slow you can imagine that the change has stopped.

In the current of life

Of all of these metaphors it is the current of the river, and life, that interests me. For if we return to the quote at the beginning of my post, it is the idea that it is the current of life that will tear you away from clinging to the bank that most resonates.

The current of life is beyond our control. We believe that we have control of our lives; we exercise free will, make choices and follow our heart. And then life takes you away. The current becomes irresistible. Just when you thought you had it all taped down and huge swell of powerful current changes your course.

At that point you cling to the rocks, or to a floating branch. Maybe you attempt to swim to the riverbank, cling on for a while, before being torn away. But all you have to do is keep your head above water, swim a little to avoid the major obstacles if possible and feel where the current is taking you.

With your head above the waterline you can see the terrain. You can see where you are headed, feel the current taking you and notice how you are. You are alive, you are travelling forwards. You are breathing and change is taking you downstream.

Calmer water will be reached. You may even reach some shallows and be able to stop, take stock of how far you have travelled and notice how you are now. Eventually you will reach the sea, we all do. Whilst you are travelling that way, keep your head above the water, you eyes on the journey and breathe. You are alive.

From the Elders of the Hopi Nation

Oraibi, Arizona, June 8, 2000

To My Fellow Swimmers:

Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are
those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are
being torn apart and will suffer greatly.

Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the
shore, push off into the middle of the river and keep our heads above water.

And I say see who is there with you and celebrate. At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment
that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word
struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.

 

 

 

 

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Chimping vs curating

Chimping

Chimping is the act of immediately looking at your camera screen after you have taken a shot. It’s called chimping because of the noise you make when you see a shot you like, “Ooo, ooo, ooo!” This behaviour is a natural consequence of our digital cameras and whilst there are one or two advantages to the habit, in the main I favour curating (pulling together a series of photos over a period of time) over chimping. Let me explain.

To chimp or not to chimp

There you are out with your camera creating photos. In the moment just after you take the photo you look at the screen. What thoughts do you have in that moment? Probably you make an instant judgement. Good or bad? Like or dislike? This judgement is inevitably linked to what you think you saw and your expectations.

What you think you saw is not as simple as you might imagine. Your eyes received sensory information; we call it light. This pattern of light was collected by receptors on your retina (like the sensor in a digital camera) and sent as an electrical signal to your brain. In fractions of a second this sensory information was interpreted by your mind, compared to memories of similar patterns of light and a label attached. This label is likely to be the name of the object or objects in your photo. If you’re thinking a bit more like a camera it might be the name of the shapes, patterns, line or texture that you see.

This habit of mind can get in the way of clear seeing as Claude Monet said,

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

Your mind also has this clever tactic of zooming in, or focusing on, what is of interest. How many times have you taken a photo of an object in a scene only to look at the photo and realise that the object is much smaller in the frame than you expected. This may be because your mind focused in on the object. It might also be because you eye operates at a different focal length to the lens on your camera. There’s a lot going on and a lot to learn.

So you look at the photo you’ve just taken, make a judgement, and keep or discard. This discriminatory approach, judging our work against arbitrary values, is a paradox. It is helpful, for without a critical faculty we will not learn and develop. But this judging mind is a tight mind. What of experimentation, happy accidents, creative exploration? Sometimes one ‘bad’ photo might suggest a new approach. Sometimes what you judge to be a ‘bad’ photo one day, becomes something you love a few days later. This brings us to curating.

Curating

Curating is the practice of bringing together a group of photographs from a wider selection. It is a positive selective practice. One that could be approached in a mindful manner; conscious of each photo, and the thoughts and feelings that they generate.

You are choosing the photos you want in this set. Generally, this practice is something that is most effective if it is actioned some time after the photos were created. Why? This provides space for some of the emotional attachment we feel about our photos to soften. We may still experience feelings when we look at our work, but the distance we have allowed creates a space to be more aware of these feelings without judgement.

Curating provides time for our ideas to gestate. Learning, understanding and growth are all given space to flourish. Feelings and thoughts settle, like dirt in water, leaving clarity and clear vision.

The two photos in this post have been chosen deliberately to illustrate my point. Neither have ever been seen before. They are both part of a curated process for The Renaissance Photography Prize that I have entered most years for the since 2010. The top photo was not submitted, I don’t recall why. It was created using a Holga toy camera in medium format, using a double exposure, because it was quite dull. I love the blue shades of coldness.

The photo below was submitted in 2010, but in a colour version. I now see that its theme of unclear seeing is more effectively rendered in black and white.

(The Renaissance Photography Prize is a fabulous competition and cause. Now is a good time to take a look online.)

So why not turn off your LCD screen, or cover it with a piece of card? Remove the temptation and see how it changes how you create your photos. You will slow down, become more attuned to what you see and more present with your experience.

Other Perspectives on Chimping

10 Reasons why you should never chimp – a Street Photographer’s approach from Eric Kim, but relevant to all photography.

Getting the Chimp off your back from the Digital Photography School

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Meditation Tips

I recently picked up a book at our local library called ‘Waking Up – Searching for spirituality without religion’ by Sam Harris. What follows is a sharing of the author’s summary of meditation and some personal reflections. It is not a review of the book, which is a philosophical, scientific and atheist investigation into the cultivation of a spiritual life without religion.

The author, Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published several bestselling books. He keeps a blog that shares irregular podcasts and has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Newsweek.

I meditate to support my intention to live a mindful life. Practicing mindfulness in every aspect of life and truly being present with each moment is an undertaking not to be underestimated. That being truly present bit is the challenge: being attuned to what is arising on our consciousness. The greatest challenge we have to this intention is our thinking mind. Try a little test now. Close your eyes and try not to think of anything for 1 minute.

What happened? I would suggest that you started thinking (maybe about noticing your thinking!) almost immediately. If you focused on your breath and tried to follow it for a minute, did any thought arise? Did you notice?

As a regular meditator I am alert to the possibility of developing my practice. I believe that it is helpful to reflect upon how to meditate and I found the summary that Sam Harris shares on pages 39- 40 of Waking Up most useful.

How to Meditate

  1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
  2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting – feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc
  3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly – either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
  4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control the breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
  5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
  6. As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
  7. The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath – or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
  8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness – sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves – as they arise, change and pass away.

What I found particularly helpful was the last two points. I would suggest that points 1 – 6 form a solid foundation for a meditation practice. Point 7 then suggests that we start to view the thought itself as an object of consciousness, something that has just arisen in our awareness, much as any external object (sound, sight etc) might. This naturally leads then to the instruction (point 8) to witness all objects of consciousness as they arise, change and fall away.

It is perhaps in this instruction where the practice deep and ongoing practice lies. Where, as we practice, we cultivate a mind that is full of the present moment and aware of our thoughts, habits and behaviours. Here is the ground.

My meditation

The most helpful aspect of my mediation I can share is that a regular routine is most supportive. It is my intention to meditate for 20 minutes every morning. When I am living a standard day this will usually be the very first thing that I do after waking up. Even where the day is more flexible I find that a morning routine is most supportive for the remainder of the day.

I am now four years into this daily practice, after a few years of being more sporadic, and I notice when I miss the odd day. It feels an essential element of my way of being and is particularly supportive times of great change. I roll out of bed, do 10 minutes of yoga (for my lower back) and then sit for 10 – 20 minutes.

I have noticed recently that this practice is starting to seep into my everyday life. As Jon Kabat Zinn suggests, ” Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation”. The more I meditate the more I become present with the one thing I am doing. It remains an ongoing practice, for I still loose my attention regularly and my mind goes wandering, but a daily meditation practice slowly accrues benefit.

5 Tips to develop a meditation habit

  1. Do it in the morning. No matter if you’re a morning person or not. Morning is when you have most control of your time. If you have a busy family then get up before them (just a little). If you struggle to get up put your place to meditate close to where you roll out of bed. Set your alarm and instead of snoozing roll out of bed and sit.
  2. Pick and amount of time you can commit to. Initially this can be 2 mins. Just get up and do it. Then, as it becomes a habit extend the time.
  3. Use an app to track your progress. Insight Timer and Headspace both support your practice and keep a record of your practice. This is great for motivation, especially if you like to receive badges/stars for achievement. Believe me it helps!
  4. Accept that you won’t get it right. There is no getting it right. You sit and you notice. This is the practice. If you notice that your mind is all over the place don’t berate yourself, congratulations are due! You noticed. Just sit, practice and notice.
  5. If you miss a morning session try doing it anywhere. At your desk. On the commute (as long as you’re not driving!). In a queue. Just close your eyes for a couple of minutes and breathe. Pay attention to your breath. Notice your feet on the floor and your rear on its seat. You are present.

 

 

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Satisfaction – A Pot of Tea

The simple things in life can bring much pleasure. One of my mine that brings much satisfaction is a pot of leaf tea.

Now I have to say, right at the outset, that a pot of tea made with tea bags can be OK, but that is the best it can really achieve. Yes, it is true, I am a tea snob! Well, I am an Englishman, what did you expect?

Actually, I believe the the British have lost their way with tea. Once upon a time it was all leaf tea. Now, it is predominately tea bags. I get the convenience, but it just ain’t the same. First up it’s the taste. Leaf tea provides so much variety. You can have the malty full body, morning awakening of Assam. The delicacy and gentle persuasion of Darjeeling and many in between. I have at least three types on the go in the house at any one time.

However, the complete satisfaction comes with the ritual. A ritual that is indeed a mindful activity! Warming the pot. Choosing the leaf tea. Boiling the water. Steeping the tea (3 – 5 mins dependent upon type). Removing the leaves or pouring through a filter and then taking that first sip. Also part of this ritual is visiting the new breed of cafes that do offer a range of leaf teas. Choosing something familiar, or maybe trying something new to challenge your taste buds.

Then of course there are the accompaniments. Simply put these are company and a quality cake or biscuit (cookie to you Americans). In a lovely coincidence, that is exactly what I am going to do now. Tea, cake and company. What a great part of the day.

This much I know

I was tempted to leave this paragraph blank! For whilst it seems that wisdom may be acquired as one lives through life experiences, I often feel that the longer I live the less I know. Perhaps I am confusing knowledge with certainty. Maybe it is not that I know less, more that the certainty of youth is replaced by a wider understanding that life is complicated and there are many possibilities and alternatives.

Richard Osman, the quiz master on Pointless (my favourite TV quiz it has to be said) when talking about this issue, said “In life, you’re like a rocket. For the first 35 or 40 years you’re being fired up into the air, and whatever your fuel was – ambition, money – you’re burning it up to get the rocket higher. But then at some point you fall to earth again.”

This I can relate to. I am very much on earth, at base camp and truly exploring that ground. And here, amongst the foothills is a thought that is slowly coalescing into a truth. There is but one guiding principle that determines what it is all about. It’s all about love or fear.

Love and Fear

Love and fear are the two main emotions that we are capable of experiencing. Every other emotion is a sub set of either one of the two. Not only are they polar opposites they are each also linked to one key hormone that regulates our body. Fear produces cortisol and is part of the fight/flight response. It is the hormone that helps our body facilitate a rapid response to danger. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and culture have created circumstances where it is a response to stress, rather than danger that is the primary reason for the hormone’s production.

Love, on the other hand produces oxytocin, which is our body’s natural antidote to stress and the effects of cortisol. If this area is of interest to you take a look at this article which identifies clearly the effects of lifestyle and hormone and ultimately love and fear.

Back in the foothills of understanding; it’s all well and good understanding something, it’s in the living of it where the challenge lies. This is where mindfulness can help. By practicing mindfulness we can become closer to our emotional experience. Living in the present moment, noticing what is happening in our mind and body provides us with the opportunity to identify whether it is from love or fear that we are living.

The Present Moment

Writing this has achieved two things. Firstly, it has brought me into this present moment. I have realised that fear is always part of my experience and runs right through all aspects of my life. Secondly, this realisation has reminded me of the new understanding I am developing of fear; how it shapes our behaviour and how I can change this.

New learning takes a while to assimilate and behaviours take practice and time to change. I have re-visited my earlier post on Fear and will be listening to Tara Brach’s talks again about moving beyond the fear body. If you have not listened to them yet and if any aspect of what I have written resonates with you then I recommend them to you. If time is tight then just listen to the second talk as it summarises the first talk and recommends two approaches to dealing with the fear. The second of these explains how love is the antidote and how we can compassionately support our experience to change our fearful reaction.

Photography and love

In my forthcoming Online Mindful Photography Course I explore more of this territory. I find it particularly interesting to explore and develop love through photography. ‘How can you do that?’ you ask. Here are four ideas that you can use as a basis for a Mindful Photography Practice on Love.

  1. Allocate a significant period of time (several weeks would be great!) where you only create photos of a loved one. This is inspired by Eric Kim’s Cindy Project – do take a look at the link as Eric explains why you should do this project. Obviously, they will need to be comfortable with the idea, but perhaps if you explain that you are exploring your love for them, they will be comfortable and even excited!
  2. Visit a location or place that you love, in the weather that most inspires you, and create a set of 10 photos that best represent what you love about the place.
  3. Choose a photographer who’s work you love. Study their work. Consider their style, their subject matter, their POV, their lens choice. Produce a set of 10 photos as an homage to their work.
  4. Create a small set of photos (or just one if it’s too challenging) that illustrates what you love about yourself.

Do let me know if you try any of these and I always welcome examples of your work to share here. The photos that I have used to illustrate this post are from a set of photos I call ‘Promenaders’ and were created after being inspired to try a de-focused 50mm lens on a wide aperture. I just love the abstract cartoon like effect created.

 

 

 

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Fear

The following post is a personal summary of the wisdom, inspiration and guidance provided by Tara Brach (meditation teacher, psychologist and author) in her two talks called ‘Beyond the Fear Body’. Links to both talks are provided below and I encourage you to spare 50 minutes per talk to fully appreciate the depth of understanding Tara Brach has regarding the role fear plays in our lives. Direct quotes from the talks are identified and the rest is primarily a summary of her guidance.

Beyond the Fear Body 1                 Beyond the Fear Body 2

Why concern ourselves with fear?

If we look at the difficult aspects of our lives, in the shadows we will find fear. Underneath the emotions we will often find fear. We can sense it. Sometimes it is sharp, sometimes a background hum, sometimes a restlessness. There is no way to come home to our wholeness, to love ourselves fully in this world without befriending the background agitation, the fear.

Fear is a dominant driver in our life. Fear + resistance (to the fear) = suffering

But how do we change our relationship with fear? How do we move from acting out in familiar ways and habitual behaviours, to wisdom and compassion. Instead of running from our fears how can we learn to turn towards, to lean in, to what we are running from? How can we find our way to presence and embrace the life that is right here?

What is fear?

Fear is our anticipation of loss. Loss of our health, job, esteem, person, control of our life, life itself. Fear is an evolutionary habit, it is nature’s protector. The oldest parts of our mind (the limbic system) provide the fight/flight response that is designed to enable us to function at our physical and mental peak, in order to save our threatened lives.

Fear turns to suffering when it oversteps. When there is a repeated perceived threat and it is not processed. Fear then locks in and the sympathetic nervous system locks in. Our bodies’ response is named by Eckhart Tolle the ‘Fear Body’ and is made up of the physical response (flight/fight response, leading to a developing bodily tension, tightening in the body, causing blockages) and our thoughts (worry, planning, controlling, obsessing, imagining) which combined dictate our behaviour.

Our behaviours in this response are to not look for what is wrong, but to distract ourselves, to try to diminish the feeling of fear. We may look to distract ourselves from fear by eating, drinking, doing things, pouncing on others or withdrawing. This ‘Fear Body’ state could almost be called a trance. The limbic system has hijacked our access to another part of our mind, the frontal lobe. This is the part that provides our capacity to be present in the moment, to notice what is happening and be mindful.

How does fear make us feel and behave?

Fear catches us in something smaller than we are. Sometimes called ‘the big squeeze’, fear squeezes out our capacity to be present and loving as part of something bigger. Instead we are locked into the smaller part of ourselves, our egoic self. Everything is centered around that limited self perception, we lose living moments and are hooked into a re-activity.

Fear drives our addictions. It brings us into conflict with ourselves and others. We become more controlling and more manipulative, as we try to bend the world to our will. Deep into this process we become less intelligent, act stupidly, our creativity is limited, we loose spontaneity and our hearts close.

In our wider society the affect of unprocessed fear on a collective level is the cause of war. When we are afraid we get violent, self protective. We try to gain control and assign blame. We manipulate this by explaining how something is wrong with the ‘other’ (the other being because of difference: race, religion, city, club etc). We don’t find it so hard to be violent to the ‘other’, they don’t feel real or connected to us. We are not connected to their suffering.

Our intention has to be to evolve from this re-activity. To move beyond the fear body to ‘attend and befriend’ the fear.

How do we evolve from re-activity?

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected pathways: Direct Presence and Train the Mind

1) Direct Presence

Direct presence is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into the fear body. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take you?

Now we need to train the mind to be able to come totally into the present moment and to connect.

2) Train the Mind

Our intention is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear”. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the Fear Body ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart, breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

Fear is the path. Fear is the practice. Fear is a portal

Read how Tara Brach met her edge and softened here

The Photos

The photos accompanying this post were created in response to a personal fear. The location, lighting, composition and black and white conversion were partly planned and partly instinctive once on location.

 

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The Illusion of the Self

The existence of a thing that we call ‘self’ has been discussed, investigated and argued about for more than two millennium. Philosophers, Buddhists, Christians, psychologists and biologists all have shared their thoughts and theories.

What the ‘self’ is and how an understanding of its influence can support you is intriguing. I am interested not only in the views of those aforementioned specialists, but also how I can use photography as a tool for self enquiry (pun intended!).

 

Photography and the self

It seems pertinent and practical to use an artistic process, in this case photography, to relate your inner world to the outer – using all those visual tools to communicate thoughts, ideas, feelings, concepts and sensations. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “A balance must be established between two worlds – the one inside 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 we must communicate.” H. Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Photography creates an opportunity to visually represent the ideas of what and who you are. You can use the visual elements of design to convey emotion, you can make imaginative use of symbol or metaphor and you can create self portraits that convey something of your self, your world and your views on who you are.

My intrigue and interest in this topic has been kindled whilst cultivating a mindful approach to photography and life experiences. In developing my  Mindful Photography Online Course I have touched upon how mindfulness provides a doorway to self enquiry and an investigation into how the concept of self may just be an illusion. I have also explored those ideas I listed in the last paragraph to investigate how you can represent your world in photos. All of this has helped me personally and by sharing my experiences through the course it can help you.

I have in the past experienced a loss of self. A severe constriction of my breathing has left me unable to be anything beyond the next breath. Over many days I experienced feeling unmanned, adrift and disconnected. I lost a some sense of who or what I was. I found this deeply unsettling and it caused huge difficulties.

When my breathing rebalanced I felt reconnected. But the experience caused me to reflect. What was it that I lost? Was there something of an opportunity arising from the experience? I don’t have the answer for you, but I continue to explore this land through my photography and writing. Do you?

 

Research

I have continued reading around the topic and have also started listening to relevant Buddhist Dharma talks. The prose below is from a talk at Gaia House, Devon by Leela Sarti entitled ‘The Illusion of Self. Equanimity and Beyond’. I found it resonated with my experience and hinted positively at how dissolving the ego can make us whole. I hope you find it useful.

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken.

There is a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterred.

There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy.

And the fragility out of who’s depth emerges strength.

There is a hollow space to vast for words, through which we pass with each loss. Out of who’s darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sounds, who’s serrated edge cuts the heart, as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole.

Whilst learning to sing.

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12 inches

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

This is my most often repeated quote. I ask the question, “What is the most important part of the camera?”, a deliberately misleading question, I know. It illicits answers that reveal a technical focus and occasionally compostional awareness. Once in a while someone will answer. “You are.” And I smile.

The camera is a tool. Bewitched by advertising and media reports about the latest camera developments we become immersed in the idea that a particular camera or lens will lead to ‘better’ photographs. The Ansel Adams quote is a reminder that it is you who is the creative agent, you who make the creative decisions. Sure high quality equipment can make a difference, but knowing how to use the equipment effectively (smartphone or DSLR) and learning how to truly see are at the heart of personal resonant photography.

Mindful Photography is all about photography that is personal, resonant and true to you. It places clear seeing, learning how to see like a camera and using seeing as an anchor, at the heart of the creative art. It uses mindfulness approaches to learn and hold gently all the technical and compositional stuff, whilst you are learning. It encourages an exploration of using photography to represent your emotional experiences, and it provides a creative vehicle for personal growth and self exploration of how you are living now.

Ansel Adams was right. You are the most important component of a camera.

The Photos

I thought I would illustrate this quote with photos from my most recent practice, with my faithful assistant. All of these photos were created with a small high end compact camera. It has full manual features so I can make creative choices. But these photos illustrate clearly that the heart of an engaging photo is an emotional connection and clear seeing. When there is an alignment between your eye, your heart and your mind the photo created resonates for you. What the viewer thinks or experiences is always out of your control. Create photographs that mean something to you.

These photos, in chronological order follow our walk through, park, lane and beach. And the final one tells the tale of its impact. Monty’s version of savasana (corpse pose)!

 

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My four (not so) noble truths

Sometimes life circumstances and events are so challenging, so not what you want that the desire to just sail away to another place, another world, another version of your life is overwhelming. The literal reality is that this is probably not possible. Your commitments, loves and responsibilities may mean that running away to sea (or the equivalent) is just not possible. Then you face your greatest challenge. Staying with the pain, the resistance, the sheer bloody anger and frustration that cries out deep in your soul, “Why me?”

In the midst of all of the messiness, all of the roiling, raging emotion is it helpful to reflect upon the Buddha’s understanding that all of life is suffering? I don’t think so. All you can feel is that gnawing question, “Why?” Why does it have to be this way? Why does this happen to happen now? Why does this have to happen? Why bloody me?

And yet that 2500 year old wisdom contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is as relevant today and to your present suffering as it was 2500 years ago. For we are human beings and we all live through exactly the same struggles and challenges. Sure they manifest in ways relevant to the era, but the human emotional experience and the way through it remains the same.

I am not a Buddhist, but I do believe that the Four Noble Truths describe how life is and the Eightfold Path offers a way to live that allows you to lean into and accept the suffering, leading to it dissolving. I know it is true because I live it. I live through suffering, just like you and I find the wisdom supportive and a practical framework for life.

What follows is a personal and current interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, you can find many more detailed and wiser explanations online, but as the Buddha may have said (there is some dispute) ‘Do not believe what I say, live the experience and learn for yourself’ (I am paraphrasing).

My Four (not so noble) Truths

1) My life is decorated with difficulty

I do not want to live with a chronic health condition. I have spent many years either ignoring it or trying to fix myself. I know that it may get worse as I age. I know that there are limited medical interventions that help. I now know (through bitter experience) that there are ways I can choose to live that support a stable health condition.

However I do not like it. I have to make choices that I do not like. I have to let opportunities go. I have to turn events down. I have to change my day to day activities. I have to make these choices or there are consequences and the consequences are even more suffering. It’s like choosing which type of pain to suffer with.

2) My suffering is caused by me not wanting life to be how it is

Accepting it is not easy. Accepting anything that I do not like sets me up against myself. My ego believes I am immortal, younger than I am, not ageing. My ego tells me I can play football, go out for a drink, spend time doing busy activities. I believe that I am the same man I always was. I am deluded.

I know that the choices I make that are not helpful now come from old patterns. Old ways of living and old patterns of thinking. My common ways of thinking, my habits, are well travelled motorways in my mind. These roads are wide, fast and easy to use. Habitual thinking is reactionary, almost thoughtless and yet I describe myself as a certain type of person, as though those thoughts and ways of being are all that I am. I imagine that I am a thinking rational person and my reaction, my resistance is normal. And so I suffer.

3) I see a way that I can help myself

I know that I can free myself from my suffering by liberating myself from my attachment to how life was or even how it is right now. I know this rationally. I know this is true. I also know that freeing myself from my attachment to how life was/is is the work of a lifetime. How do I know this? Because it is bloody difficult. Because I regularly fall over. I get caught up in my old ways of being, my old choices and then have an acute health situation.

Knowing something and living something are not the same. However, I now know that there is a path that I can follow that supports the possibility of freedom from my suffering. I am on the path, this blog is part of it, but compared to the motorway I have been travelling on it often feels like an unsurfaced track through undulating terrain. Sometimes it is more challenging and feels like an unforgiving jungle with no path and I have just a machete in my hand.

4) My path through the jungle

My path involves a great deal of paying attention. I know that this is deeply ironic, for it was not paying attention that lead me to the place I find myself. The paying attention includes tuning into to how I am each day. Making wise choices as to how to spend that day. Considering the things I have to do, those I can change or move and those that are optional.

I believe that my path involves following work that echoes my life choices. I have for some time felt that my employed work did not do this. Taking the chance to work freelance may seem a big risk, after all being self employed is more stressful than full time employment, is it not? I am not sure. I am acting on a deeper wisdom. A calling to give this way of working and living a try. A belief that it will sustain me emotionally and financially. A belief that I must engage in work that I live as well. Mindful Photography is part of my path, part of my life practice.

I make choices to engage in activities and with people that support me along the path. Maybe I also help them. After all we are all dealing with the same causes of suffering. I have a daily meditation practice and I use a variety of techniques and practices to come back in to the present most days. Oh yes, it is a practice and I do get lost in the jungle sometimes. I do lose my way and fall back on to the motorway. But I notice and make the decision to move back to the path less travelled.

So if you are suffering, if life is particularly challenging for you right now, know that there is possibility in a 2500 year old wisdom. You do not have to become a Buddhist, but maybe read a western interpretation of the Buddha’s experiences and thoughts and then try something out yourself. But do not expect to get it right. For it is in the getting it wrong and then trying again that the path through the jungle lies.

Be compassionate for your journey. You are a beautiful person.

 

 

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What has abstract photography ever done for me?

There was a time when I just did not get abstract photography. What was its point? Pretty patterns, shifty shapes and creative colour all looked OK, but what did it mean? I was more of the literal photographic field, telling tales of human life. Real people, real lives.

I am not sure when it changed, so I assume it must have been gradual, but I have now swung the other way. I get it. Well, I get what it does for me. Does it work for you? Let me share what it does for me. You might change your mind.

Let’s start with a definition: abstract (adjective) “relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures”.

OK, so it is photography that does not attempt to represent external reality. Instead through choice of shapes, colours, patterns and textures it “seeks to achieve its effect.” And in the case of abstract photography this creates the opportunity for an emotional response to a photograph.

Abstract Photography is a little like poetry. With poetry the words, rhythms and spaces create images in our mind that connect with our heart. With Abstract Photography it is the shapes, colours, patterns and textures we choose to frame that create the emotional connection. We are less concerned with what the object is (because it is not easily defined) and more receptive to how we feel about the photograph.

Fooling the Mind

 

Here’s a little test. When you first saw this photo what happened? In fractions of a second your mind took in the colour, shapes, shadow and lines and tried to find a match to a previously known object. You were searching for a label to name the object. We do like to make sense of this world and of course it is this ability that keeps us alive!

What if you can’t identify what it is? What happens then? Your mind has absorbed other facts. The colours, shapes, patterns, lines etc all suggest ideas and feelings. These ideas and feelings are generated from our personal experience and from our culture. For example: white symbolises purity, cleanliness; the downward curve could be the edge of a sad mouth. We are reading the photo and connecting with how we feel about it.

 

OK, who didn’t see waves here? There we go, our mind trying to conceptualise – to make sense of the visual cues. There is not water of any kind in this photo. It’s all tarmac, concrete and metal. Most importantly though, how does it make you feel?

So are you intrigued? Do you want to learn more? On my Online Mindful Photography Course (available in September 2017) I look in depth at creative abstract photographers and delve into the opportunities abstract photography presents to create photographs that make an emotional connection. You will learn different approaches to representing your emotions in a photograph and how to create photographs when you are experiencing strong emotions. This then provides support for processing some of life’s difficult experiences. Yes, a mindful approach to photography can help and support you!

All you have to do is keep an eye on the website, maybe subscribe to the blog (in the footer below) or download the FREE eBook, which will not only provide some thoughts on Mindful Photography, it will also get you subscribed to me Monthly Newsletter.

P.S. The photos were of a kettle and a car parked by the pavement

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The Unruly Mind

With mindfulness, as we practice – be it meditation, mindful photography or simply being present with the one thing that we are doing – our present awareness develops. As our present awareness deepens, our understanding and appreciation of the moment has room to expand. In this moment thoughts may arise and we notice how busy our mind is. We practice by returning to our anchor. In meditation this is often the breath. In mindful photography it is the seeing.

It is helpful to remind ourselves why we do this. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the roots of mindfulness. This paragraph from Lama Surya Das (an American born Tibetan Buddhist Lama) from his book ‘Awakening the Buddha within reminds us what mindfulness is.

“In the original Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha described what he called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These teachings remind us to be aware of our bodies; aware of our feelings and emotions; aware of our thoughts; and aware of events as they occur, moment by moment.”

The Unruly Mind

Mindful practices – breathing meditation, mindful movement (yoga, qigong, walking), body scan and mindful photography all allow us to be more present in our lives and to connect with our bodies, feelings, thoughts and events. The most challenging discovery is that it is our minds that are unruly. Running about indiscriminately through our past events, memories and future plans. Concocting imaginary conversations and worrying about things that may never happen.

I like this quote that lightens up the challenge ahead!

“Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our very worst enemy. They give us so much trouble. Sometimes I wish the mind were a set of dentures which we could leave on our bedside table overnight.” Sogyal Rinpoche

May your practice calm the unruly child that is your mind.

The Photo

As a practicing mindful photographer I know that bringing this awareness to photography allows the possibility that personal intuitive art that resonates with our heart and mind can be created. The photo above was created whilst practicing mindful photography and reminds me of the unruly mind; the confusion of imagery, the depth of vision and the possibility of life.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Photography is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”
Henri Cartier Bresson

I do love this quote. Not only does it summarise my view of photography beautifully, it has also been an inspiration for my development of a mindful approach to photography.

Henri Cartier Bresson was a French photographer who is generally regarded as the father of photojournalism. He was an early user of 35mm, which with his rangefinder Leica and 50mm lens attached allowed him to develop his candid style of street photography. He is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase ‘the decisive moment’, to describe the optimum time to press the shutter.

This quote neatly encapsulates the key aspects of outstanding photography and is worthy of a brief analysis.

The Eye

What we see through our eyes is light and colour. Our eyes do not know what it is that they see. In that way they are very much like the camera, they record the light, they do not label what they see.

Our eyes also see like a combination of two lenses. They have a focal length similar to a 50mm lens, but with far wider angle of view. Our peripheral vision gives us the view similar to a fish eye lens – but without the severe distortion.

All of this sensory information is passed instantaneously to the brain, and that is where the trouble starts!

The Head

By head, we mean the role of the mind in photography. Its primary purpose is to interpret all of the visual information provided by the eyes. This is to keep us safe, identifying potential threats and potential sources of food. Except when we train to be photographers all of that identification and labeling can get in the way of seeing what is really in front of us.

The features before us are the light, colours, shapes, forms, lines, space, patterns and textures. Our mind receives this visual information and in a snap compares this to known similar visual data and labels the object(s). All very useful on the Serengeti Plains when out hunting. but as a photographer hunting a great photo it is the features that we need to see before the label. For it is this that will guide our artistic creation through compositional choice.

So how can we learn to forget the names of what we see and truly see everything, and every possibility? Practice. In the online course I am currently developing I share practices that can help to develop this ability.

The Heart

The heart is used here to signify the emotion of a photograph. If we are to create photographs that rise above the ‘good’ to be ‘great’ we need to engage the heart. Both ours and the viewers. How can we do that? Guess what? I share some of the foundations of how photographers first attempted to do this, and some useful mindful practices to support your development as photographers in my online course.

If you are intrigued why not download the free eBook below and then you’ll get some great information, and a mindful photography practice. You will also get more detail about the course (because you’ll be subscribed to my newsletter) and be the first to try out my free Introduction to Mindful Photography 5 Day Challenge, which will be released in September 2017.