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.

 

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.

“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)!

 

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.

 

 

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 my Monthly Newsletter.

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

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.

Sometimes events arrive in our world and all that we know is shattered. Even if we know that nothing is forever we sometimes imagine that it is. Then in a flash it is gone.

Loss, often in the form of death, is one such shattering experience that we all live through at some time. I was reminded of this by my friend Phil who recited (from memory) a short poem by Leon Wieseltier from his book Kaddish. I have not read the book, but I believe it is an autobiography that was written after his father’s death, about his loss and how his faith and exploration supported his acceptance of the shattering event.

Phil has kindly recorded himself reciting the poem. It is less than two minutes long. Do listen.

Are you relieved to see a bit of sunshine? If you are UK based then you’re probably expressing delight or misery, dependent upon whether you’re enjoying some well earned rest or working in the heat. It is very warm for the UK. And boy do we let everyone know!

I was looking for some inspiration to go with the ‘relieved’ title and came across this favourite photo of mine from a Paignton Seafront visit a couple of years ago. For those of you with an interest in photographers as inspiration I must confess that this photo owes a debt of gratitude to Martin Parr’s Last Resort. That series of photos truly nails the British on holiday in Britain. It’s the little details, with an edge of caustic humour that I loved in his photos and this one kind of echoes that intention.

I love the irony of the guy on the left reading the Sun under an umbrella. And the Britishness just shouts out: the striped deckchairs, the edge of a sandcastle, the beach huts, the mix of dress choices and those fluffy white clouds against a blue sky. They all lend to the seaside postcard feeling.

Do you think they are all relieved to be on their holidays? Let’s hope so!

Monty is a middle aged Bijon Frise. White haired, curious and very friendly. What can a four legged creature teach a two legged one about mindfulness, consciousness and the self?

Monty is a creature of the moment. His day is shaped by routine and it is coloured by sensations and experiences. He is a conscious creature, aware of his surroundings and stimulated by what he perceives. He sense of smell is of course, acute. At any meal time, whilst food – especially meat – is being prepared or eaten, the patter of his little feet approaching the kitchen can be heard.

His sense of hearing is (allegedly) 10 times more sensitive than ours. I can be on one floor of the house and make a cat noise and Monty, on the top floor, will come thundering down the stairs in the hope of seeing, or perhaps catching a cat.

Monty experiences emotion. He experiences fear: loud traffic noises, flying objects, fireworks and certain dogs in the park all stimulate a strong desire to run back home to safety. Something he has done several times, fortunately dodging traffic as he careers across busy roads.

He seeks out contact. He likes to be be stroked, held and played with. Apparently, when we stroke a dog serotonin is produced not only in our body, but also their’s. Are they experiencing a feeling of well being?

Like Monty we are also experiencing our life through the sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise in our consciousness. Monty though, lives solely in the present moment. This is his greatest teaching.

This doggy moment

Monty has a vocabulary of 30 – 40 words. Each of these words will stimulate a response. Cat, food, sit, No, go, Bijon, sausage, wait etc are all associated with an action. And whilst we do talk to him as though he understands, language is of course a concept too far! So when I talk to him about a cat he saw earlier in the day, Monty will perk up and look for the cat in the room now. Not only is language a concept too far, so is the past or future.

Both the past and future are concepts we have created to explain and cope with the passage of time. We are smart enough to imagine that the past actually exists. But, of course, it does not. It is a construct we have created and that we hold in our consciousness. The past is not a reality. You cannot touch it or experience it in any way, apart from in our imagination. If you attend an experience that recreates the past – a play, film, themed event – you are experiencing the present moment, albeit a present moment that is shaped to look and feel like the past.

Similarly, the future never exists. For when we reach a particular point in time it is the present!

Monty knows this. He only knows that there is this moment right now. Monty lives in the present moment. The mindful hound!

The doggy self

Monty has one other lesson for us. Another trick up his furry sleeve which helps him to be present in this moment. Monty has no concept of self.

If I hold Monty up to a mirror he may look at himself briefly, but pretty quickly his gaze slips away to what is behind or next to him. There is no curiosity. No checking out how he looks. There doesn’t even appear to be a recognition that he is looking at a dog, or that the dog is him.

So the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘self’ does not trouble Monty. He experiences his day a series of sensations, feelings and thoughts arising and passing. Each one is a singular moment and each one is experienced in that moment.

We though get sidetracked. Our mind has created a construct it calls ‘self’. This construct is constantly being refined, developed, coloured and shaped by our sensations, feeling and thoughts. Above all it is the thought that we are an independent self, different from the next person that separates us from this present moment awareness.

My concept of self is strong and is reinforced every moment of every day. Sitting in meditation or following any mindful practice has the potential to remind us that it is only our consciousness receiving. There is no self experiencing. The self is an illusion. An imaginary beast. A construct created and recreated by our conscious mind.

Monty is always with the experience of the moment. They are fine teachers, our canine friends. Guru Monty has much to teach me!

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’m not sure where I first came across this, I tend to jot down quotes I like for future reference in a little notebook. This was in there.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor in the 2nd century who wrote several books, now known as Meditations, over ten years whilst on military campaign.

This particular quote reminds me that each and every moment is here but once. Whilst the encouragement to ‘do every act…..as though it were the very last..’ is somewhat melodramatic reminder, sometimes we need those dramatic thoughts to shake us from drifting through the moment and day. Perhaps he did not mean it so literally, merely as a call to wake up and be present in our day. Which reminds me of what a wise bear once said about waking up and the day ahead.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”

A A Milne

Every ending may be a beginning, but sometimes we find the adaptation to this change beyond comprehension. I was discussing endings and beginnings with my good friend Phil today and he recited a short poem he had learnt on this very topic by Leon Wieseltier, from his book Kaddish.

A poem should always be read out loud, so I asked Phil (who needs no second invitation, being a trained actor) to record himself reading this fabulous poem. If you can spare 2 minutes please sit quietly and contemplate these wise words.

It’s got to be great!

There you are, setting out on a little activity. It could be a photography job. It might be a DIY task or a children’s birthday party. Whatever it is you will have at the front of your mind an idea of what the outcome will be: a storytelling photo, an effective shelf, a fantastic party. You have an attachment to the outcome.

“Nothing wrong with that” you say. “How else can I ensure success unless I work towards a great outcome?”

Perhaps what you are really saying is, “How else will I know that I am ok unless this activity turns out well?”

We look to our successes as evidence that we are great: fantastic photographers, nifty DIY experts or loving parents. Perhaps the focus of our attention should be elsewhere.

What if we were tuned in to the journey rather than the destination?

Step 1: Begin with kindness

We do give ourselves a hard time. Everything we do carries with it an assessment of how well we think we have done. We may also think about how much better we could do.

What if instead of focussing on this judgement, of a yet to happen outcome, we centred on the process we found ourselves in? What if we started with kindness towards ourselves?

Let’s cradle how we feel about each of the steps that make up the complete task. Looking at each step, let’s tune in to how each part might be. How difficult or easy. How much would be fun. How much might be tricky.

Let’s have some empathy for how these steps might make us feel. Let’s start with kindness for the journey.

Step 2: Loosening our attachment to the outcome

Once we develop some compassion for our feelings as we engage in the activity, we can begin to loosen our attachment to the outcome. By tuning into the whole process we encourage an awareness of how we will be along the way.

By practicing being totally present with every element of the activity we give credence to our feelings. We allow ourselves to be who we are. We begin to recognise that we are perfect in our imperfectness.

An ability to see that our attachment to the outcome is narrow can develop. Our understanding expands to know that every step along the way is an opportunity to flourish. In this fertile ground our capacity for non-judgement slowly rises.

Our ability to let go of our attachment to the outcome becomes possible.

Step 3: Sharing the merit

Instead of sharing the outcome, however we may judge that, we can now consider sharing the merits of the journey. Our capacity to see all of the experience as holistic life experience underpins our knowledge that we are OK. All this stuff is just life happening. Everything, the glory and the grime, has the capacity to expand our understanding of what it means to be human.

We may also want to share the outcome, but this now may just be another part of the process of self understanding. We may now be able to explain that although the outcome was not what we had hoped for that we wouldn’t have changed the experience ‘for the world.’

Loosening our hold on the outcome allows us to become more present with each element of the activity.

This is mindfulness in action.

“In the end, just three things matter:
How well we have lived
How well we have loved
How well we have learned to let go”
– Jack Kornfield

 

As one door closes another opens. You are familiar with this phrase. Of course often it’s a sop to comfort you when the change was unexpected. Sometimes though it is you who exits and closes the door. That is how it is with me right now.

Yesterday I left my part time employment with the Dylan Thomas Centre. I am now full time freelance. This is an exit I have thought about for some time and has an intention at its heart. I have chosen to do this to focus on the development of my online course in Mindful Photography.

Those of you who read this blog (even occasionally) will know that I have intended to do this for some time. However, there never seemed to be enough time and still keep life in balance. So something had to change. I have managed to gather enough resource and other income streams together to give myself a few months of dedicated time to this development. The summer months will be time where I develop the course content from the Mindful Photography book I already have written. Then it will just be a question of attending to the marketing and technological challenges before launching sometime in September 2017.

Yesterday I walked out of the Dylan Thomas Centre for the last time as an employee. It felt good. The right time. I am ready for this. Bring it on!

Having completed a few Photo Marathons now, I thought I would share a few tips to surviving (and thriving) at a Photo Marathon. I’ll be explaining what a Photo Marathon is, why you should try one and illustrating this post with the photos from my most recent event – the Bath Photo Marathon 2017.

What is a Photo Marathon?

A Photo Marathon is a test of creativity, endurance, photography skills and sense of humour. It is usually a competitive event, often with prizes, and takes place over a set period of time. A common format is 12 Topics, 12 Photos, 12 Hours. In that format you have to create 12 photos to illustrate the 12 topics, one photo per topic and they must be in topic order. You start with a clean memory card and complete with only the required 12 photos, unedited.

Why you should do one

A Photo Marathon is a test of your photography skills, knowledge and observation. It will test your stamina and resilience, but ultimately it is a test of your powers of creativity. It is worth noting that the 5 Creative Habits of Mind are described as: Inquisitive, Imaginative, Collaborative, Persistent and Disciplined. A Photo Marathon tests all of those habits of mind!

Taking part will fire your creativity, get you exploring a new city, introduce you to people with the same interest and challenge your photography skills. What’s not to like?

Ten Tips to Survive (and thrive) a Photo Marathon

  1. Read the rules and guidelines. Make sure you understand the timescale, photography requirements, locations, pick ups, final deadline etc
  2. Start with an empty memory card and a charged battery. Carry spares of both. Spare battery and charger will keep you in the game. Spare memory card means you can create other photos as you go (if you have the energy)
  3. Wear the appropriate clothing. Comfortable shoes, trousers that will get dirty and pack clothes for possible weather changes
  4. Enter the event with a friend. One of you has the camera, both of you fire off ideas at each other. Two heads are definitely better than one. You also get to spend time with that person and get to know how they think. Probably a good thing huh?
  5. Pace yourself. Make sure you build in breaks and refreshment; it is an endurance event. Often you are more creative during the first half, but more decisive in the second half. Excitement at the beginning creates more ideas and photos. Tiredness makes you more decisive.
  6. Aim to do a negative split. Be decisive in the first half and then you’ll be more creative in the second half. (That’s a running joke!)
  7. Decide on each final photo as you go. Do not leave that until the end, you’ll be tired. Do each topic in turn. Complete and choose the final photo and then move on. This provides creative clarity.
  8. Discuss and view topic photos together, but decide in your pair who makes final decision on choice of photo (usually the photographer)
  9. Use insider knowledge. It is helpful if one of you knows the city. If not then talk to locals. Ask for advice. However don’t let your knowledge or information about the city limit you seeing what is right in front of you.
  10. In a standard Photo Marathon with the same number topics as photos and hours choose a simple overarching theme to link the photos. Some use a prop to do this (like a mini lego figure who appears in every photo). Others use in camera processing (usually allowed) e.g Black and White. Or choose a theme, like a colour or technique – red or low/high point of view. Surely someone will soon submit a set using a drone camera, if they haven’t already!

Bath Photo Marathon 2017

I did this year’s Bath Photo Marathon with my old friend Simon. It was a great excuse for us to meet up – as Bath was kind of equidistant – and we got to catch up and have a few beers after.

Our photos are below. They are in the order given, the titles are underneath and have an over arching theme – Scarlet. Well, it was red really, but a little orange crept in! We had to create 20 photos in 10 hours. These were provided in two sets of ten, with a location to pick up the second half.

Our favourite photo after all this was the ‘Fashion’ photo. This best illustrates our collaborative process and sense of the absurd!

Your Entry Number

Contrast

Red

Looking through

Fashion

Fragment

Corner

Refreshing

Control

Crossing the line

Next Generation

Street Life

Movement

Self Portrait

Abstract

Missing

Found

Show off

Sign

The End!

 

I have recently changed my camera system. After more than ten years as a Canon DSLR gunslinger I have traded everything in for a Fuji mirrorless system. What’s all that about then? Why choose to make any change? And why choose that change?

I am living through a period in my life of great change. I have made some choices, choices to live in a certain manner, that have sent ripples through my life. These have primarily impacted upon my relationships and livelihood. What I have noticed, in that process, that once you start with major change not only does each change have fundamental consequences, there is also a burgeoning desire to make other changes.

Whilst changing camera system might seem unimportant in itself, it is related to the life changes and could be seen as a metaphor for them. I have changed to a simpler, lighter, smaller system. In making the change I have had to ask myself what is important in creating photos? What do I need to achieve that? The outcome is one Fuji XT2, the kit lens and one prime lens – the 35mm f1.2.

Those choices are about portability and focal length preference. They are born out of experience. Experience and knowledge of how I work best. How I see the world. And it is in this respect that it is a choice that chimes with my other life choices. Simplifying and responding to what feels real, authentic and true.

Creating Photos

So there I am with my new shiny new camera. And just like starting a new job or primary relationship there is unfamiliarity and uncertainty. I breathe, return to myself, and remember that there is something in the creation of an abstract photograph that calls to me.

It is worth reflecting for a moment what abstract art is. It is defined as 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. Its effect is that in losing your clear link to an identifiable object you connect with how the photo/art makes you feel. This feeling is conveyed by the use of colour, shapes, colour, texture and the other visual elements of design.

In this process the artist can express how he feels, though how the viewer feels when viewing the photos may be different. But it is in this sharing that the magic lies. For the photographer can aspire to the broader definition of abstract – existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence – abstract concepts such as love or beauty.

I can be experiencing an emotion, thought or idea and through my visual design choices I can attempt to convey my experience. For me the true magic lies in the gaps between our common cultural interpretations of visual design elements, the personal experience I am living through and the viewer’s current lived experience. It is this interaction, which is part in my control and choice and part completely free of my interference that calls to me.

So there I am with my shiny new camera. It is unimportant. What is present is my experience in that moment and what I can see in front of me. These four photos represent that experience. They are the interaction between the external reality and my internal resonance of that reality. What I was feeling and what you feel (once you have got beyond the need to try and identify what the objects are!) is the magic between us.

 

My refocusing of my photography business as an online service that offers self development and enquiry through photography, with Mindful Photography at its heart, has encouraged me to reflect on why I have applied mindfulness to photography. Jon Kabat Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living), who has probably been one of the main catalysts for the growth in popularity of Mindfulness in the West, explains some of my thinking.

“….bringing Mindfulness to any activity transforms it into a kind of meditation. Mindfulness dramatically amplifies the probability that any activity in which your engaged will result in an expansion of your perspective and your understanding of who you are.”

Expanding your perspective

I like this a lot. “An expansion of your perspective” is a fabulous way of saying that you are totally immersed in the moment. Aware of what you are experiencing. Aware of the emotions coursing through your mind and feeling them in your body. Aware of the ground beneath you and the sky above.

As a photographer that would translate first and foremost to being completely tuned into the visual experience in front of you. The light, the colours, shapes, forms, patterns, textures and more would be what would provide your anchor. Like the breath can in meditation.

Furthermore the relationship between this visual experience and creating an equivalent of it with your camera (taking a photograph) would provide the opportunity to practice mindfulness with your technical and compositional choices. This is a huge subject; one I address through my online course.

Understanding who you are

The final part of the sentence, “…..and your understanding of who you are.” opens the possibility of using photography as a vehicle for personal enquiry. This is something that interests me greatly and I will continue to create resources throughout the next year to support personal enquiry through photography. I’ll be testing them on myself first and sharing them here.

Henri Cartier Bresson provides us a glimpse of how this enquiry is possible in his famous book ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

“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.”

It is these two areas: expanding our perspective and understanding who we are, that will be threads running through my mindful photography offering into the future. It is going to be a fascinating journey I do hope that you will join me.

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Vulnerability

In our fast moving, success orientated world it may seem that vulnerability is a weakness. Having worked in the vibrant hospitality industry and the results orientated education industry I am familiar with that perception.

My travels through the hierarchical world of management, from trainee to senior manager, certainly reinforced that view. Managers who reacted in ‘inappropriately emotional’ ways or had a ‘health crisis’ were often encouraged to follow different paths. Our learnt behaviour, through observation, was to be logical, determined and resilient.

Health crisis

My own health crisis occurred in the middle of my aspirational College career. I believed that I was on track to even higher levels of responsibility and was (almost) completely signed up to the accepted model of management style.

When I first became ill, I carried on. I worked for another 3 months, through a major inspection before succumbing to increasingly more challenging health. Whilst I was well supported by the College for over a year, once it became clear that I was unlikely to be able to return to my job I was encouraged to take a redundancy package.

Allowing vulnerability

Some eight years beyond that final departure, I began to see another side to vulnerability. I had finally begun to understand and accept my own choices that had led to acute health changes in my chronic condition. I  made the conscious decision to be open about my situation; to write about it here and to share my own vulnerability.

This allowing and admittance of a natural feeling has had two positive effects. Firstly, it has given me freedom to change my path. I have let things go. I have chosen to develop more supportive practices. Whilst this is still early days, by celebrating my authentic position I feel more myself, more rooted in core beliefs I am comfortable with. I can see that this change will provide the best opportunity to be healthy (as distinct from cured).

The second positive effect is that by sharing my own vulnerability I have given others permission to be vulnerable. I have received messages from others who have offered supportive words and related their own challenges. My friendships with other men have changed, deepened because a platform for discussion about difficulty has slowly developed. This has in turn further encouraged me that I am on the right path.

I am now two years on from that point and much has changed in my life and is continuing to change. The simple act of beginning to be open about my feelings has allowed more to surface. This opening in turn has changed my choices and decisions. My life has taken a new direction, and is still developing. It is like a stone thrown into the pond of life, the ripples spread out and out and continue to come. Eventually all will be calm, but perhaps the pond will never be quite the same again.

Vulnerability means facing up to my fears. Working towards understanding them. Working towards understanding why I make certain choices, why I behave in a certain way in particular circumstances. It is a doorway to greater self knowledge, and helps the development of fearlessness. You could say it is a superpower!

Vulnerability is an opportunity. By connecting to our own vulnerability, feeling it in our body and knowing it in our mind, we are one short step away from changing it from a perceived weakness to a strength.

Photographing Vulnerability

Photographing feelings and other invisible matters requires a few tricks. First up, you gotta have your imagination fired up. For me, that generally means before lunch and maybe just after a large steaming mug of tea! Then you need to consider your preferred working style. If you’re a planner, who needs to consider all props and conditions, then get out a notepad and start brainstorming. If you’re more intuitive and responsive, then take a look around. What is before you and how can you use it?

I think it was Walker Evans who believed that the photographer’s greatest tools were metaphor, paradox and oxymoron. Me, I do favour a visual metaphor and in terms of my style I lean more towards the intuitive, with a touch of planning.

I created the photo below at a community photography workshop a couple of years ago. Having spotted our box of lego mini figures my first thought was to represent myself (the photographer) as one of the figures by using the lego camera prop. After I had decided against any of the hair additions (there not being a thinning grey haired one available) I had the inspired idea to use the T Rex as a metaphorical ‘threat/fear’, creating a vulnerable position for the lego photographer. Then it was just a question of an interesting location, use of the available light and choosing the appropriate exposure. Voilà!

On the 25th March I am running a Photography Walkshop titled ‘Creative Limitations’ in Swansea. This post explores a little of the ground that this idea sprung from! If it interests you why not book on, there are still a few places left and it will be a small group ( not more than 10). There will also be cake. What’s not to like?

We often think of limitations in a negative sense. Can’t do this. Not able to do that. But there is a positive side to limitations that can fire your creativity and attitude to life.

I have been living with a physical limitation for several years. Many people do. It is undoubtedly true that this limitation has shaped the way I live my life. It has influenced my career, relationships and interests. It would be possible to see these changes as negative, but I feel it has provided the framework for a more conscious life.

The limitations perhaps should be described as parameters, boundaries in which I can live, love and breathe. And in much the same way we can decide upon a set of parameters in our creative work and this then can fire our creativity. I recently came across this idea in the book The Photographer’s Playbook (published by Aperture). The book comprises 307 photographic assignments and ideas from a range of practitioners of the art and this particular idea was shared by Christopher Anderson (Magnum photographer).

“The greatest freedom is to have no choice. Confining yourself to certain parameters can actually lead to discovery of a universe of subject matter that is hard to find when you (if you are like me) tend to wander endlessly.

Make a set of parameters in which you will work. This could be a geographical parameter (one city block for instance), or a psychological, thematic, or technical one. The point is to create a method of working where you make some very strict and precise choices about how you will not work. The stricter the better. Set a time constraint (one week, month, whatever) during which you will work only this way. After the time period is finished, repeat the assignment by creating an entirely different set of parameters.”

An example

I have used this idea of parameters several times, with varying degrees of commitment and outcome! I thought I would share a few photos from a project called 50/50 which I started one January a couple of years ago.

My intention was to take 50 portrait photos of people I met using just my 50 mm lens. I managed 16 before something changed. Not sure what but I stopped doing the project. Perhaps it was because it was not time bound. I now see the benefit of that. Anyway here are a few of my favourites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” – Ansel Adams

I was looking for inspiration today and came across this fabulous quote by the landscape photographer Ansel Adams. His thought expresses a concept I have explored before and one that I shall be revisiting on my second Spring Photography Walkshop.

The relationship between your inner world – your thoughts and feelings – is one that must reflect your creation of a version of the outer world – the photograph, if you are to create a great photograph. You cannot separate the photographer from the person. The photographer is the person, and if your photographs are to say something of how you find the world then you have to allow that to shape and influence the photographs you create.

The photos I have included to illustrate this post were all created yesterday whilst practicing mindful photography. In that practice my intention is to remain (or return) to the visual whilst my mind shoots about. In that continuing practice I quieten and become more attuned to my outer world. The hope is that in this still place a connection between what I perceive and how it makes me feel is established. In that moment I press the shutter.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” – Ansel Adams

Photography and the Web of Connection

I spent the summer of 1976 living with my Dad in Windsor, Ontario (Canada), a place I’d never lived before. He’d moved there a few months earlier and was able to get me a job where he worked.

My second part-time job that summer was teaching figure skating at the local arena. A few weeks in, the skating club had a “test day” – where skaters perform before judges to see if they’ve achieved the required skills to move to the next level. The cold and cavernous arena was filled with the chatter of skaters, coaches, judges, and parents all gathered for the big day. There was a sense of camaraderie in the air. When someone passed a test, you could hear joyful sounds of celebration and when they didn’t, you heard groans.

While I had been warmly welcomed by the skating community, it was clear on this day that I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. At least, I felt like I didn’t. Most of the people there had long established relationships that would continue long after I left. Surrounded by hundreds of people, I felt very alone.

Sometimes, we feel the most disconnected and lonely in a crowd.

Maybe you’ve felt this way too. Since I was a young girl, I yearned to connect in a way my family members and closest friends could not always satisfy. It wasn’t the kind of connection met by conversation or through sharing experiences or memories. It was another kind, but what was it? It took me years to realize what I was missing and how to fill it.

In fact, it wasn’t until I began to photograph that I discovered the very connection I was missing. When that first image of winter trees in my backyard appeared in the solution so many years ago, I felt an aliveness I’d never experienced before. The photograph was a tangible representation of my connection to a place. Those intertwined branches represented the inherent way everything is already connected. My camera was showing me how to be fully in the moment and to connect through my photographs.

“All my creation is an effort to weave a web of connection with the world. I am always weaving it because it was once broken.” (Anais Nin, Winter, 1942)

Ever since then, I’ve practiced reweaving my web of connection through photography.
My camera teaches me how to slow down (pause), pay attention (focus) and then connect with what’s there (click the shutter). It teaches me about myself, what I’m drawn to and what I turn away from. It teaches me how to engage, and most importantly, how to trust what I must share.

Every photograph is about relationship – between photographer and subject or between subjects within the frame.

I believe that we live in an interconnected, interdependent world and that the quality of the world and of our lives depends on the quality of our connections and relationships. We are unique individuals, but we are not islands. We are connected. We belong. Photography then becomes not simply a way to express myself, but that connection. A photograph is a symbol of relationship. It’s a visual Namaste, where something deep inside of you connects with the essence of your subject.

To give you an example, while in Chicago, I walked along the river one cool and rainy morning. Colours often stand out on these types of days. This was certainly true on this day as I found myself drawn towards two small, fuchsia pink leaves glued to the back of a lime green bench. They were slightly overlapping and covered with big, fat raindrops. The scene felt so tender, like one was comforting the other. The contrast of the two bright colours accentuated the feeling. I moved in close to focus on the two leaves against the lime green bench.This simple and minimal image shows what I saw and hopefully, what I felt.

10 Ways to Connect through Photography

1. Pause and notice what’s resonating inside. What stopped you?
2. Focus by looking closer with a soft and loving gaze.
3. Notice any judgments that come up and let them go.
4. See everything as a worthy and potential subject.
5. Open to new possibilities by changing perspective.
6. Welcome the unexpected. Let the photographs come to you.
7. Use all your senses in the experience.
8. Notice what you’re feeling.
9. Trust yourself and what you value.
10.Share yourself generously.

We are all forces in this world with the potential to connect and contribute. Each one of us has something to offer. Get to know what you value and what matters most and you will begin to live out your purpose. Nothing needs to be added to make your life more interesting. Instead, eliminate what’s not important and follow your instincts. Your life will be richer and more rewarding, and you will have a greater impact on others. Everything you do and say and create matters.

Kim Manley Ort is a photographer and workshop facilitator. You can connect with her through her website, Facebook page, or on Instagram. The photographic exercises in her book, Adventures in Seeing: The Camera Teaches You to Pause, Focus, and Connect with Life, will help you to tap into a deeper awareness of yourself and the world around you. You’ll rediscover your own connection with a world fully alive, a world where you belong and have a place.