“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. Every day you create conversations, you ad lib and innovate. What is certain is that your capacity to make something from the moments or elements of something else is your birthright.

The difficulty 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 judgemental 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. I know, simple to explain, but anything but simple to live.

Your 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. Any 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

 

This photo was created during a mindful photography practice at a multi-story car park. No Photoshop has been used. It is a creative practice that uses slow shutter speed, intentional camera movement and observation.

This year has been a challenging one. The last six months have thrown up two life situations that have been full of difficulty, but at the same time laced with possibility and learning. The first three months were dominated by a short term contract in a Welsh school to support pupils to develop their own website. The experiences there are for another time. For now, I want to focus upon the last three months which have been shaped by my Mum’s car accident and subsequent death. My early thoughts on this experience were shared in For Dying Out Loud, but I thought it would be helpful to share (for me and hopefully you) how the first few weeks after her death have played out.

I think it is fair to say that I am a little woozy at present – recovering from a small operation and still processing Mum’s death. I write this in the hope that it will bring me greater acceptance and clarity, as I’m sure it will. Let me start with our second trip to Canada, which was actually booked long before Mum’s accident, but has been perfectly timed, after her death to follow her wishes to celebrate her life.

However, before the celebration of Mum’s life we had other instructions to follow. Mum had decided that she would be cremated at a local provider. The basic arrangements were agreed and paid for, even the transport of her body from the hospital was organised. Kim just had to pick up her remains, and then we had to decide how we would meet Mum’s request about the disposal of her ashes. Mum had no desire for a grave or marking of a place to remember her, she desired her ashes to be scattered over ‘flowing water’. Ignoring the helpful advice that ‘a toilet would meet the brief’, we decided to scatter them in Mission Creek, a river that runs through the city along a walk that Mum loved, known as the Greenway. Eventually, we found a suitable bridge and Kim and I took it in turns to take a handful of ashes and scatter them with a few personal thoughts. I did not feel any great goodbye during this. I found it difficult to connect this gritty, sandlike stuff to my Mum, I understood the significance of the action, but it already felt like I had said goodbye.

And so to the Celebration of Life. It’s helpful during the early days after the departure of a loved one to focus on the organisation of what has to follow. This gives us a purpose and a rock to cling to, whilst the river of life is coursing past. I don’t believe that we don’t then think about how painful it is, but that we are doing something positive that both keeps us occupied and makes us feel useful. I can’t say that I did a lot of that! Kim did most of the work, but come the day of the Celebration of Life everybody pitched in.

One of the key features of Mum’s celebration was colour. The venue and everybody attending had to be colourful. Mum had, for decades, worn bright colours, often rocking the one colour look from head to toe that is now apparently trendy! So, the rule was, wear bright clothes, turquoise being the best choice. Most people wore their brightest clothes, sometimes if that didn’t quite rock our boat they were given one of Mum’s colour coordinated hats, just to hit that spot.

The whole event was held and led by a new friend of Mum’s, Corrine. Mum had met this wonderful lady whilst she was in ICU in Kelowna Hospital and very confused. Corrine supported Mum to understand where she was and how she could move through this challenging situation. Corrine and Mum came from the same place, when it came to making spiritual sense of our world, so it made perfect sense for Mum to ask Corrine to lead us through the celebration of her life service. Kim and I both shared our own thoughts and stories, an essential part of coming to terms with our loss, and we also had many photos from her life on display – including a slideshow of original images from the 1960s, some of which were taken in Canada.

After the event the immediate family and friends went out for a big meal, and a couple of celebratory drinks. “To Mum!” we cheered. And the next stage of life commenced, although we didn’t really notice. I am not sure that I have completely tuned into the fact that she is not here to tell me I am a terrible correspondent, or ask where the photos are I said that I would send her last month. I know I miss her reading posts like this and pointing out all my typos! Sometimes I forget that she is not around anymore, thinking we haven’t spoken for a while, before I remember that is no longer possible.

The absence is strange. Our parents and siblings are our longest relationships, when they leave this world part of them remains, in our memories and our hearts. It is this that we must cultivate in our own way, finding a way to hold any pain with compassion for our loss. It is perhaps a little easier when this loss is that of a parent who has lived many years. The loss of someone much younger, unexpectedly and before the natural point is far more traumatic. The confusion and raw, visceral pain must be maginfied manifold, but I believe that the living through it remains the same. Compassion, love and kindness is the antidote for grief. How we find those in ourselves when we feel our hearts are torn open is the challenge. Perhaps, the knowledge that they are always there, no matter what, is a small starting point. We may not be able to imagine this truth, we may need much support and guidance to re-discover them, but they are there and they will surface, even if scars may still remain. This is a truth.

The storm will pass

We don’t much talk about death. We skirt the issue. Express our condolences. Use stock phrases. This unfamiliarity and avoidance becomes self perpetuating. It doesn’t serve us well and it doesn’t support those who are living through death. But I have had a more uplifting experience of approaching death and the final exit over the last few weeks and I would like to share it. To share the love. To invite a positive way through this most challenging of life experiences: death.

Just over eight weeks ago my mother, who lived in Kelowna in British Colombia, Canada, had a car accident. Whilst travelling through an intersection, on a green light, she was ‘T-boned’ – hit side on – by a driver who can only have been distracted and didn’t see the red light. His car was one of those large trucks they love in that fuel friendly continent, so it made a mess of Mum’s hatchback. More to the point it made a mess of Mum.

She sustained many injuries, some which were apparent at the time, some which were discovered over the first few days and some which had existed before, but were not common knowledge. Mum broke most of her ribs, shattered her pelvis, tore her liver and broke bones in both legs. Later we discovered that her diaphragm was irreparably damaged, meaning that she was unable to successfully expel all the carbon dioxide each time she breathed out. This led to two comas and the need to wear a mask at night to expel the CO2.

Early on in her time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) it became apparent that Mum had cancer in one of her breasts, and this cancer had been there for 5 years. Fortunately, it was ‘non-aggressive’ and slow moving, but it had still made a mess of her breast. Mum had chosen to not believe that it was cancer and to carry on without taking medication. Ultimately, this made little difference. However, it did lead to a later discovery that she had another type of cancer in her other breast. This one wasn’t so kind. It was the aggressive type and in a normal scenario would have led to masectomy and chemotherapy etc. This though was not an option.

The damage to her diaphragm meant that an operation was not possible. Nor was any other treatment when coupled with a potentially long and unsuccessful rehabilitation likely to rescue the situation. The prognosis was bleak. Life may have been possible for up to year (it was suggested) but the quality of that life would have been debilitating and very challenging.

Family

Mum’s 86th Birthday

During all of this my sister Kim, has been at the centre of the care, communication and daily visits. Prior to the accident she and Mum had a good, but sometimes challenging relationship. Now, in an instant everything was turned upside down.

Kim visited daily, often for most of the day and into the evening. She moved into Mum’s flat in Kelowna and she was given fantastic support from Laura (her youngest daughter) who also moved into the flat. Between them they visited Mum every day, sat through the long days, entertaining each other and Mum, rushed in the middle of night when coma called and kept me in the loop every step of the way.

Of course, this is exhausting. Kim was in the middle of a storm of emotion, of fear, confusion and love. Often we spoke, via Skype or on the phone, and I offered what support I could from this distance. She was also supported by her husband Mike and older daughter Morgan, but it was Kim and Laura who daily faced up to potential death and the many feelings that accompany it.

Being an ocean away I felt distant, confused and tired. I was busy with work, but the unfamiliarity of the situation and feeling of helplessness was insidious and debilitating. I didn’t really realise most of the time how much it was exhausting me. The background hum of what ifs and what nexts are relentless. Fortunately, I had fantastic support from Dinah and other friends, so when Dinah spotted an opportunity in our diaries to visit, we booked straight away.

Before we went over I joked to Kim that we would be the half-time entertainment, that the first half was over now and after we left the second half would be quite different – ‘many a true word’…… The visit was a catalyst and support for us all. At the time Mum was deep in confusion. She did not know if she wanted to live or die. The full nature of her situation was known to us all, but knowing, fully understanding and accepting the implications of that are not the same thing.

She did not know what she wanted. To live and work through endless rehabilitation, whilst the spectre of aggressive cancer ate away. Or just to die. One afternoon she became convinced that she was going to die that night. We each spoke to her at length and said our goodbyes. That night we went back to the flat, drank lots of lovely wine and took a vote on the likelihood of her death that night. Gallows humour, I think they call it. Anyway, we all voted that she would survive and she did.

Death can also be tremendously healing. Kim and Mum spent so much time together, talking about nothing and everything. They healed all rifts and left nothing unsaid. Open, honest and authentic conversations are needed at this time. And with that comes love. Love fills in the spaces in our heart, spills over into the people we talk to and holds us up, to face what we did not know we could face. From and with love we develop resilience, heal wounds and become one family supporting each other.

The Second Half

Dinah and I left Canada on a Wednesday. We know now that on the Friday Mum had made contact with the people who could arrange her death. Canada has had Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in place since 2015, over 7000 people following the procedure in the first three years. We didn’t know that Canada even had this option. Obviously, Mum did.

I think we knew that it was going to be happening on the Friday, we also knew from research that there was a ten day cooling off period. However, we expected the wheels of administration to move quite slowly. It was a shock to find out from Kim, over the weekend, that it was happening just over a week later. Mum must have signed all the papers and got the necessary permissions in place on the Friday after we left. Truly a catalyst of a visit.

On Tuesday 7th May at 7.30am local time, the procedure was booked to happen. Kim, Mike and Laura were present. The doctor may have been a little late, the space for Mum’s prayers may have slowed things down a little, but eventually she drifted off to sleep and then the heavy drugs did their work. She passed peacfully just before 8.00am and is now on her next journey. During the assigned time Dinah and I sat peacefully at the beauty that is Clyne Gardens. We chose a spot close to moving water and the sun came out to warm us.

Clyne Gardens

Kim and I and the extended family all support her decision. The quality of her life would not have been worth living. Why live on suffering and deterioration? Surely it is kinder to move on? We believe so. Mum looked so at peace and well in her final few days. This came from knowing her decision was right for her, that it was known and accepted by those closest to her and that she was loved. She lived a very full life, had two marvellous(!) children and four fantastic grandchildren. She lived a life of curiosity and enquiry, explored different ways of understanding this thing we call life and emigrated to Canada aged 70. A courageous and much loved woman. We will all miss her and carry her in our hearts.

“If we are able to give ourselves to the loss, to move toward it – rather than recoil in an effort to escape, deny distract, or obscure – our wounded hearts become full, and out of that fullness we will do things differently, and we will do different things. Our loss, our wound, is precious to us because it can wake us up to love, and to loving action.” Norman Fischer

I hope that you are soon going to be taking a break from your busy schedule. You deserve some rest and recuperation. Don’t we all? I am going to be taking a two week break from my many projects, at least that’s what I’m promising. So, this is the last post from me till next year.

Next year I will be starting with a bang, with some very exciting project/exhibition news that might involve you (if you live in Swansea!) In the meantime have a lovely time with your loved ones and I will see you the other side of the festivities.

Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

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?

 

“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.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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

“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.

 

 

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

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

 

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

How is it for you? As a mindfulness practitioner being aware of how I am is a regular practice. Do the questions why and how interest you? Let’s investigate them.

Why be aware?

Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to each moment as if it is all there is. Which it is of course. But your attachment to past events and future possibilities generates many thoughts and feelings, taking you away from truly experiencing the moment.

Mindfulness encourages you to be aware of your sensations, your thoughts, your feelings and how you are living. And it is meditation that trains your mind to achieve this level of awareness. But why bother?

I believe you should bother because this way of being encourages the greatest learning you can achieve, a clear and deep understanding of who you are and how you are living.

From this intention to work towards an understanding of self, develops the possibility of true self acceptance and the possibility of living the best life you can.

This is a journey, rather than a destination. It is a commitment to honesty, integrity and authenticity. The journey will be challenging, life is challenging. But if you can see life as a series of challenges rather than blessings or curses then you are truly a spiritual warrior.

How to be aware?

Mindfulness and meditation are practices that support this way of being. But if you start with a commitment to the idea that all of life is a practice then your path becomes visible.

Everything that arises in your life is an opportunity to notice how you are. To notice the thoughts and the feelings. You don’t need to do anything with what you notice, just noticing begins a process.

Noticing your thoughts and feelings is the first step towards accepting what they are and developing the possibility of responding skillfully to the situation, rather than reacting in you normal habitual manner.

Having a regular meditation practice supports your ability to be present in your life. It is mind training. Paying attention to any activity – walking, washing up, taking photos, arranging flowers – turns it into a kind of meditation that we call a mindful activity. All of this is training for your monkey mind and supports your intention to be fully present in your life.

How it is for me

I have been very busy over the last two weeks completing my online course in Mindful Photography. In that busy-ness I lost my attention to how I was. The consequences of striving and not paying attention to the impact of that effort manifests in my body.

My breathing gets more difficult. This of course should bring me into the moment. I have plenty experience of this pattern. It is a habitual behaviour. But even with years of experience it still takes a while to realise what is happening.

Now I have connected with how it is. I have taken a break, pending finalising details over the next two weeks, and paid attention to how I am. The consequence of this paying attention is improved breathing. I know, it’s not rocket science. If I rest, if I pay attention I recover. But I get caught up in how I want things to be. I am caught up in the future and not being present with how it is now. Once I return to this moment life has a chance to re balance.

Your Practice

If you don’t have a regular meditation practice I encourage you to start one. It will make a difference, an almost imperceptible difference, over many years.

Just start with 5 minutes, every morning first thing before you do anything else. If this is not an option spend 5 minutes somewhere in your day sitting, with eyes closed and follow your breath.

As you gain in confidence and regularity increase the time. I sit every morning and do a little yoga for at least 20 minutes. I have done this for many years. Only when it became a daily practice did I begin to notice it influencing the rest of my life. But it remains an ongoing practice. I still fall over. All I have to do is get back up again!

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.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

 

 

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.

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 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.