Peg Talks

If life is all about experiences then it’s all the richer for attending the Peg Talks. These are a celebration of Swansea residents’ inspiring stories and occur every two months at the Square Peg Café.

Square Peg opened in the Sketty area of Swansea a few months ago and offers fab coffee, real tea and a glorious range of cakes in a cool and friendly environment. Even better they donate their profits to a couple of local charities.

Last night I rolled up to this hipster social enterprise ready to listen to three locals’ rousing personal talks and I was not disappointed. First up was Sue Kent, who was born with no arms and seven fingers, and was full of infectious energy and positivity. Sue told an entertaining tale that covered foot fetishes, determination, big dreams, the Paralympics and Massage by Feet. The latter is the name of Sue’s successful venture into the eponymous service and she offers her unique service in Swansea and London.

Following Sue, after a short break was, Sean Stillman, the founder and spiritual leader of Zac’s Place. If you have never heard of Zac’s then you are not a Swansea Resident, for Zac’s provides an essential service for the most vulnerable people in the city. Sean was, as always, humble regarding his contribution to the support Zac’s offers to Swansea’s rough sleepers, but I know that keeping this indispensable service running has been a work of love and commitment. Sean complimented his army of volunteers, but keeping the team together is impossible without some spiritual guidance and Sean provides plenty of that.

Sean shared two stories from the street that were both moving and illuminating. They were a reminder that each of us, no matter our circumstances has the capacity to feel and share love. We all felt the love!

Last up, was the no less inspirational and successful, local entrepreneur Nathan John. Nathan’s story of dreams and determination followed his journey from being told at school that he was thick, should leave school (pre GCSEs) and work in the local factory, to establishing his innovative business Rewise Learning. The trick Nathan pulled off was using his own unique study method to first succeed at his GCSEs and then turning his idea into a business.

Nathan was not thick. The school had failed to diagnose his dyslexia. Nathan set his GCSE revision to music, after all we all can remember lyrics to the songs we like, and then passed all his GCSEs. From then to now has seen many successes, including endorsement from the Prime Minister and Richard Branson.

Nathan echoed Sue’s message of hard work and dreams that underpinned his adventure. After all, ‘You’ve got to have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’ (as Captain Sensible reminded us)

Peg Talks-2 Peg Talks-3

 

 

Using one focal length

Mindful photography is about being present with what you see. It is also about adapting to the situation. I often use a simple set up for my practice; usually a single focal length lens (a 40mm) on my DSLR. This is my go to, walkabout lens.

I choose to use this lens because the focal length is very similar to how we see (which is around 43mm, albeit with a greater width and a mind that looks to zoom in). Using one lens regularly, particularly one that is similar to how we see improves our seeing and how best to create photos that reflect what we see. Using this one lens I become attuned to the camera’s way of seeing. I begin to think in terms of how the camera will record the scene.

Over time this photographic thinking, which includes colour rendition, the framing, composition and the dynamic range of the light, becomes learnt and familiar. With continued practice, reviewing the outcomes and adjusting my technical choices, I begin to know what to expect from my camera. Through this doorway lies the possibility of reacting more instinctively to the scene, allowing my subconscious to make more of the technical and compositional choices. In this moment I let go of trying (to take a great photo) and allow the creation to occur. Through this process the possibility that there may be something of me, and the way I feel about the world, in the photo becomes more likely.

When I first tried shooting a whole year using just one lens I did it for reasons of artistic impression. Using just one focal length creates a unifying similarity to your photos. This can be beneficial if the photos you are creating are part of an ongoing project. It is ideal for those 365 projects that comprise of one photo a day. Then along the way you will also reap the benefits of instinctive creation and greater connection between what you are seeing and how you feel about the the world you are experiencing.

The photos that accompany this post illustrate my musings. A visited Caswell Bay, the Redcliff end, with Taylor to take him surfing. However, I decided to take my camera with the 40mm lens on, rather than the big zoom, and not shoot surfing photos. Instead I would see what was there and respond to my experience. I chose a black and white edit because of the high contrast of the scene.

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Fear and the imagination

Lately, I have been very interested in the role that fear plays in our lives. My most recent post on the topic explored fear as an opportunity and how it can be a practice for our life. In a similar vein I have recently come across this TED talk below by author Karen Thompson-Walker ‘What fear can teach us’, that looks at the link between fear and the imagination.

The talk provides plenty of links between fear and the process of creation and as such underpins the experience I have followed in using my fears to inspire my photography.

It is an 11 minute talk and is sure to fire your imagination.

Feel the Fear

Over the last six months I have written several posts that have explored the theme of fear. Each time my motivation for looking at this area was spurred by personal experience, in particular living through a very difficult health period. It is difficult enough to experience the challenging events in our life, but then to also consider that our behaviours that surround the event may be underpinned by fear is maybe a challenge too far. But it is in this arena that there is space for the greatest personal understanding and growth.

One of the thoughts I was often drawn to was that the fear we experience is a fantastic opportunity. Does this sound ridiculous? After all we do not want to feel fearful, do we? But how would it we be if we explored what was underneath the fear? What would it reveal? How would that enrich our life experience?

Yesterday, I had a consultation with a friend who is a homeopath. Rita is an old friend of many years, who I find it very easy to talk to. In the course of a few consultations, over the last few months, we have been exploring my current health challenges and the path that has led me to this point.

Our discussion yesterday started with the major changes that have manifested in my life in the last month: a diagnosis for my breathing condition and the decision for Beci and I to separate. Both of these changes have provided the ground for some big decisions and it is clear that I am at a particular crossroads in my life. After some discussion around how I felt about these changes, including the fears I had regarding the potential decisions that are impending, we returned to discussing my life choices that had led to the beginnings of my health condition, some 10 years ago.

I talked about the drive and desire to succeed that underpinned my attitude and commitment to my work and my running. At the time I was working at Swansea College as a senior manager and had secured a new management position in a re-organised college led by the new Principal. I was very keen to be successful and to be seen to be ambitious. At the same time I had committed to a thorough, and slightly obsessive, training schedule to run in marathons and other long distance races.

This driven and success orientated attitude to life was ‘normal’ consequence of the evolving culture of the time. You could say that I was simply immersed in the Zeitgeist. Alternatively, you might ask, (as Rita did) what was really fueling this behaviour? The answer came instinctively: fear. My desire to be brilliant at my new job, to be seen to be a committed and influential manager was fired by a fear of not being good enough, of having to prove that I was a talented and successful senior college manager.

Similarly, my commitment to a campaign of long distance races with incremental time and distance improvements was underpinned by exactly the same fears. I needed to be seen (by myself and others) as being good, and getting better at long distance running. There was also more to it; an element of challenging the effects of ageing was certainly present.

Mid-life often means we no longer play team sport and we may become seduced by the idea that keeping fit can be achieved through a programme of distance running. And this is of course true. But, there is also more going on. By striving to keep fit we are also trying to keep ageing at bay: or perhaps we could say that we are fearful of getting old and ultimately, dying.

Fear as the practice

The realisation that fear drove my behaviour over 10 years ago is not that much of a surprise, but it is only now that I see that it is an ongoing feature of life. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing in the background, like the hum of a radio, is fear. Understanding what each fear is, that is directing our behaviour, is the opportunity, the practice.

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 practices: Present moment awareness and Training the mind

1) Present moment awareness

Present moment awareness 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 fear. 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, we can listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take us?

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

2) Training 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 Brach 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 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

 

Honesty

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”  Pema Chodron

Looking at ourselves ‘honestly and gently’ is perhaps the most courageous act of our life. Gentle honesty requires a non judgmental attentive mind set where we remain present with our thoughts and feelings as they ebb and flow. We meditate to train the mind in this mindful practice and then life happens.

As we start a new year there is an opportunity and inclination to consider how we are living and how we feel about that living. These are the fundamental questions that Pema refers to. Fundamental, as they go to the root of our day to day living and experiences.

If you have read this blog over the last six months or so you will know that 2015 was a particularly challenging year. I often referred to these challenges without going into personal detail where I felt they might compromise other people’s feelings. This is an intention I intend to continue and in the spirit of gentle honesty I feel I should share a recent decision Beci and I have made.

We have decided to divorce. After 21 years of marriage this is a major decision and hopefully one that will allow both of us to continue our own gentle honesty and personal growth. I know that we both hope to get through the next few months with grace and dignity and emerge with a respectful relationship that still supports our kids and those we love. Mediation and living a mindful life, aware of those thoughts and feelings that swirl and eddy, is at the centre of that intention and I consider myself fortunate that I have embraced this path less traveled. I will continue to consider how photography can also support this way of living and look forward to the experiences along the path.

 

What’s going on?

Both of these photos were taken last week. My feeling is that the photo is more powerful than the word, for the words that have been written about global warming are not changing anything.

In the UK over the last 4 months we have had weather that is close to extreme. In September and October we had very warm days, very little rain and plenty of glorious sunshine. Halloween was the warmest on record in the UK , with several towns in the south recording temperatures above 20°C.

But never mind the UK. September was the warmest global September on record and according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seven of the first nine months of the year have broken global records.

And there is no let up! On 2nd November Aberystwyth in Wales was the warmest place in the UK in November ever, at 22.4°C. And this month December is on course to break similar records.

So when Taylor and I went out to Oxwich Point yesterday it was hardly a surprise to see this woman striding across the rocks on her way for a dip in the sea. The air and sea temperature are currently similar. Yesterday it was 14°C, we even sat outside for a post surf cuppa.

The headline photo was taken two days ago in one of our local parks. All over the park there are spring like shoots poking through and in parts of the south of the UK blossom is out. Will we get some proper cold winter weather? It looks unlikely, based upon the year so far.

So, spread the word. Share your photos of Spring in Winter. Let’s get the UK talking global warming.

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Cameras that sense your emotions

Intuitive cameras?

Would you like a camera that senses what you are photographing? A camera that knew how you felt when pressing the shutter? A camera that used all of this information to adjust the colours, tones, exposure and contrast to take account of your intentions and record a photograph that best invoked your feelings?

Nikon imagine that you will. Earlier this year they published a report based upon current life and social trends that predicts our future photography habits and needs. 

 ‘As far as people continue to be emotional our aim or our goal is to help people to capture their emotional moments and support them from an image capturing perspective. There is no limit to capturing intuitive images.’ Tad Nakayama, Corporate Vice President of Nikon

 

Future Of Imaging image - FINAL_web

 

Take a look at this imaginary camera screen display from Nikon. Notice how the camera ‘detects’ what the scene is of, including location and weather, the subjects in the scene, who the photographer is and how they are feeling (heart rate). Whilst I can imagine that some of this could be pre-programmed choices, much as we can currently choose the type of scene we are shooting and choose the relevant mode on our settings, other information (heart rate) indicates some form of personal monitoring.

I understand that Nikon are targeting the mass market with these predictions, not the enthusiasts and professionals, but I do find it all a little sad and that they are missing a fundamental truth.

Conveying emotion in a photo

The fundamental truth I feel Nikon are missing is that what we choose to photograph and how we choose to create that photograph is a melding of the intuitive and the learnt. These choices reflect our inner world (see post Inner world – outer photos). Those magic moments when what we have learnt and understand about our camera, its capabilities and limitations, are held so gently that we instinctively make choices in the moment that connect to a deeper place in our soul. This is the art of photography. The true magic.

This experience was beautifully described by Eugen Herigel in his book ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’, where we can imagine replacing the bow with a camera and the art of archery with the art of photography.

 “Art becomes ‘artless’, shooting becomes not shooting……the teacher becomes pupil again, the Master a beginner, the end a beginning and the beginning perfection”

The header photo of this post was chosen as it represents how I was feeling when I created the photo. The beauty of this, is that whilst I had an intention in that process, you might see or feel something else. Our experiences and feelings associated with colour, shape, light etc may be similar, but they are also personal. So what I feel my photo conveys might be different to how it makes you feel. This feels like a gift to me. Each photograph offers the gift of opportunity. Opportunity to experience  your feelings and that, my friend, is enough for me.

I believe that this concept is at the heart of mindful photography – photography that connects us to our feelings – and it is a key part of my online course, The Mindful Photographer. The third course in the series is titled Feeling and explores this terrain in detail. It considers how mindfulness can support us to connect with our feelings and then explores how photography can be used to represent our thoughts feelings and emotions.

If this sounds interesting you can find out more by enrolling on the FREE introduction course. You never know you may well be an intuitive expert by the time Nikon finally develop their magic camera!

 

 

 

That time of year

There are many activities that are associated with this time of year, from Christmas shopping, through prepping the main meal, to the office party. One that you might find interesting is a review document of this year that supports you to look in detail at the challenges, successes and much more of the departing year; before beginning a plan for how you would like the next year to go.

The document I have used to do this is shared (for free) by the e-course expert Susannah Conway. It is called Unravelling and it is a downloadable PDF that you can then print and take to your favourite coffee shop and work your way through, whilst keeping yourself fueled.

I usually complete it over a couple of sessions, doing the review of the old year one day, before beginning the hopeful intention/planning stage for 2016. It is certainly a more thoughtful process than the end of year resolutions that last until 4th January! But it is a thorough and mindful process. Be prepared for some soul searching.

 

 

What do I know?

The more I know, the less I understand

The more I understand, the less I know

This phrase came to me last night when I was meditating at the end of men’s group. Undoubtedly its appearance in my consciousness was influenced by our conversation. Now, I can’t tell you what that was – what happens in men’s group, stays in men’s group! – but I thought I would reflect a little on this two line thought.

In the last five months I have been writing blog posts that explore a little of my experience of living through a health crisis. I took the decision to write honestly and share personal photos, partly because it just felt the right thing to do and partly because I had to change something. I’m not sure I knew that then, or even that I know it now, but it feels like it might be a truth

And that’s the thing. When you start being more honest with yourself and sharing, it changes the world around you, which then changes you. Once the door is open, and you’ve taken a step outside, there is no closing it.

The most interesting thing that has changed are my relationships and friendships with men in my life. Not only has a men’s group started in this period, but my friendships with men have changed. Once I started talking about how I felt and sharing some of my vulnerability it gave my friends permission to do the same. Then once they were through the door and in the same space as me our relationship started to change.

I am not sure I want to completely understand what and why it has happened. It is enough to know that it has happened. The benefit is shared. And that benefit is a snowball rolling downhill.

This week

This week I have spent three days on my own, with the occasional company of men. I have been writing and editing content for The Mindful Photographer – hopefully ready for a January re-launch. I have also been filming short videos as part of the courses’ content. This is an unexpected benefit of my recent minor operations on my throat: my voice is reasonably strong and breathing stable.

I am aware that I am doing this, not just because I can, but also because I may not be able to in the future. The proposed future major operation to open my trachea further will improve my breathing and therefore reduce risk. However, it will lead to reduction in vocal capacity. Filming videos now captures a version of me that may not exist in the future.

Then any video or photograph we create does that. Each moment exists but fleetingly. We rarely reflect upon that truth. It’s a little scary, a reminder of our mortality. Perhaps that’s why I am exploring my experiences openly and honestly. I am more connected to my mortality. More aware that the game has changed. As Carl Jung said, “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning”. Recognising that and making changes is the challenge and the opportunity.

That much I know. Or maybe not!

All the gear: no idea

If I am honest the thought that a different or ‘better’ item of photography gear will improve my photography is never far from my mind. Do you have the same experience? Or are you happy with your camera and lenses? I have over the last couple of months been thinking about changing some or all of my camera gear and I have also reflected on how this change can be a positive experience that will help improve my photography.

The key question we must answer when making changes to our camera and equipment is, ‘Why are we making the change?’ If the answer is because that new item is brighter, shinier, better, quicker, sharper or cooler then that change may not be necessary. In fact we may have a full on version of GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

However if the answer is that we have closely looked at the photography we do and that there are some items we do not use, and others that would support our ability to create photographs that we desire to create, then the change may be a wise one.

Motivation

The question that we are really considering is, ‘What is our motivation?’ My motivation to change equipment was born of a desire to make my equipment lighter, less obstrusive and I did like the look of the Fuji X-T1 and its range of high quality lenses! It is a fabulously cool, retro and quality bit of kit, but would it support my development as a photographer?

I started listing my existing equipment – a Canon 5D mkii, various Canon primes lenses (most the professional L lenses) and one or two old manual lenses (like the Takumar Pentax 135mm above). I then trawled through ebay looking for the prices that this equipment might garner and arrived at a total potential value. This then I used to calculate which lenses I could afford to accompany my new shiny XT-1 and created a desirous list.

Fortunately, I then caught myself wrapped up in this gear acquisition mode and spent a little time thinking about why and what would really make the difference to my photography? This thought was fueled by misplacing one of the Canon prime lenses. I could not find my 35mm f1.4 anywhere and is its value was around £650+ this was a significant dent in my budget.

At the same time I received an email from Eric Kim, Street photographer guru, which shared a fabulous ebook. This resource triggered a realisation that as street photography was one of my motivations for photography creation I should first consider the equipment I had and what I could use now. This thought then broadened into a deeper consideration of the type of photos I choose to create now and how I see that developing.

Conclusions

I came to the following conclusions:

  • I use a light, high quality lens with a focal length similar to our eyes’ focal length a lot (Canon 50mm f1.4)
  • This lens, whilst ideal as a walkabout lens for my general mindful photography practice, was a little large and obtrusive for street photography.
  • My 35mm f1.4 (if I could find it) would also be a suitable focal length for street photography, but it is even larger and heavier than the 50mm.
  • I would benefit from a small, pancake type lens of a similar focal length for street photography. This would be less obtrusive and lighter to carry around.
  • In trying to find my 35mm I reviewed my stored photos in Lightroom and did a search to reveal when I last used the lens. I hadn’t used it for over a year and then only sparingly.
  • My other interest is to develop my landscape photography. I have a 20mm wide angle lens that I use for this but if I sold the 35mm was there something that could cover a range of wide angle focal lengths that I might use more and would be great quality?

Fortunately, buried under a load of boxes and equipment I found the 35mm. I researched pancake lenses and found that Canon made a highly regarded 40mm and that it was only around £120. If I sold the 35mm and the 20mm I would have enough to buy the 40mm and the new 16-35mm f4 lens for my landscape photography interests. Keeping with the Canon 5D mkii (for now!) would also provide higher resolution photographs than the Fuji X-T1.

Finally, I had reached a conclusion that supported my creative photography intentions and at zero net cost. The process had been a helpful one, that’s why I’m sharing it now! Sure it’s OK to desire new equipment, after all that’s what the advertising is encouraging us to feel. But noticing that in us and then reviewing what we like to take photos of and considering what would support our future development as photographers, that is a mindful practice.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Often I create photographs to illustrate my posts. The idea for this post though was inspired by the panoramic photo below. It is a composite photo of Caswell Bay Beach which, if you click on the photo below, you can experience at full size.

The title of this post and its theme leapt into my conscious mind whilst I was editing the photo: a literal example of the proverb that is the title of this post. The meaning of the proverb, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ is an encouragement to remember that every seemingly bad situation has a good aspect to it.

I thought that it would be interesting to reflect on this proverb from the perspective of mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy and to relate this to my own experience.

Judging Mind

The proverb is an encouragement to look on the positive side of every situation. This could be seen to be helpful, but it implies that the truth is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ situations, events and happenings in our lives. From a Buddhist perspective this would be an example of the judging mind in action.

The judging mind is a quality of mind that has certainty and rigidity at its core. It is a quality that imagines that we know how things are and that we are attached to our likes and dislikes. As a consequence when something happens that we do not like we judge the situation as ‘bad’.

In traditional Buddhist terms the judging mind is a manifestation of one of the three intoxicants; aversion, attachment or ignorance. This means that beneath our judgement of the situation as ‘bad’ we are either keen to not experience the situation, or we are attached to the idea of it being different, or we do not understand what is happening.

The judging mind is something we can notice arising when we meditate or take photographs. In meditation we sit, follow the breath and our mind continues to experience thoughts, sensations and feelings. We may simply judge this experience as a ‘bad’ meditation and that when our mind is quieter as a ‘good’ meditation. Alternatively, we may get caught up in one particular thought and notice that it is a replay of a recent experience and that we are judging how we acted or spoke.

In photography the most common manifestation of our judging mind is when we review our photos. Whilst a constructively critical approach is essential to skills development, a strong judgement that photos are ‘good or bad’ may discourage experimentation, limit creativity and hold back the learning process.

A judging mind is a small mind, closely attached to our smallest self. It reinforces the idea of separation, that we are different. Meditation and mindfulness are the opposite of this. They encourage the development of non judging attention; that we notice what we are experiencing, the thoughts, sensations and feelings but that we do so in a forgiving manner. We hold our experience with compassion. We experience our world with loving kindness and equanimity.

Real world

Of course this is great in theory. It is an ongoing practice. My current experience is that a long term chronic health condition, plus recent acute attacks, has provided rich ground for practice. Sure I get caught up in my personal experience. It sends ripples through every aspect of my life. I do get attached to beliefs that my interpretation of situations is correct and this then leads to judgement, difficulty and disharmony with those who do not share my perspective.

Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to sit quietly and notice the thoughts and feelings that arise attached to these experiences. It provides the space for compassion to flourish. Within this practice is the possibility of not judging, of noticing, not reacting, but holding the experience with loving kindness. It is challenging and I remind myself that compassion starts for my own reactions, my own judging mind.

I know that these reactions are patterns of thought that have been repeated and reinforced over many years. Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to notice and to remember that there is another way. It is a practice, a practice for a lifetime.

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The Autobiographical Self

We have a strong sense that we are who we are. This is reinforced and explained by a series of ‘I am’ statements. I am Lee Aspland. I am 54 years old, I am a photographer. I am a husband, father, son, brother etc. Each statement provides further clarity and determination that we are an entity, that somewhere inside of us resides a self. An independent human being, separate and distinct from every other human being.

But as you take a closer look at those statements you will note that each one of them is subject to change. Through the passage of time each one of our ‘I am’ statements can dissolve. Our notion of who we are is created over time by place, circumstance and events. It is created and reinforced by memory to become this thing that is described as the ‘autobiographical self’

“What we sense as a “self” emerges from stimuli both from within and without our body through complex levels of neural integration. The integration of memory and self is not a one-time occurrence but involves lifelong development. The autobiography of self is the accumulated unique mental narrative that emerges from our experiencing and participating in the flow of events and interpersonal encounters that reach a level of awareness critically facilitated by emotional tone. Autobiographical memory plays an important role in the construction of personal identity. An individual’s construction of themselves through time serves the function of creating a coherent and largely favorable view of their present selves and circumstances.”
Barton J Blinder MD PhD

Me, selfies and the self

I created the photo in this post to represent this idea of an autobiographical self. Each individual photo represents me at a different age and in a different role. Attached to each photo is also a memory. Each memory is both reinforced and created by the photo. I may remember the time and place of the photograph, or I may have memories attached to that time and place, or I may only have memories of the photo itself, its existence freezing a self that no longer exists.

This process where we create our identity is reinforced by time. We imagine a strong web linking each moment from our lives, each event and circumstance further defining this notion of ourselves. Photography plays a key role in this process. Each portrait captures forever a momentary self. Each photograph supporting the memory and creating a narrative of our lives.

But the reality is that each moment is gone. The person I was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago is longer who I am now. Each moment is transitory, each aspect of our self is already fading as we think of it.

The idea that the self is a product of our consciousness, our mind, constantly created, adjusted and developed is one that is well explained by neurological theory. And yet we don’t want to let go of this notion of who we are: this individual self. And why should we?

The answer to that question underpins our raison d’être – our reason for being and fuels our interest in who we are and why we are here. It is the stuff of life and has been the motivation to explore the idea that the self is an illusion. If that is something that intrigues you there are a couple of resources below you might find of interest.

Interesting talk

Here is a link to an interesting talk by Leela Sarti that explores several of these themes. It is has a Buddhist philosophical perspective, but is very much rooted in our current world and life. The talk can be listened to on the website or downloaded and replaying at your leisure

The Illusion of Self, Equanimity and Beyond the Abyss

Two overviews of the Illusion of Self

A blog post by Sam Harris: Interview with Bruce Hood author of Self Illusion

A personal reclamation of the self by Steve Taylor

Rhythms of Life

Life is full of rhythms. From the seasonal to the physical. External to internal. We live through many processes. Some of these rhythms are slow changing yet immutable, like the seasons. Others are triggered by events or actions and play out in a cycle.

Often we are so immersed in our happenings that we are not conscious of the role a rhythm is playing in our life. Mindfulness provides us with the opportunity to observe life. To slow, to breathe and maybe even to stop. Then in our moment of stillness we may feel, see, notice what is playing out.

When we meditate we observe what is arising in our consciousness. We may use the breath to attempt to slow and anchor the mind, and occasionally we may experience a moment or longer when we are simply noticing what arises. The thoughts (always the thoughts), the sensations and we can just be with this practice.

This is helpful practice that can influence how we go about our day. At least I hope it is! I meditate with the aspiration that the practice seeps into my everyday living; that I become more aware of what is happening, how I am being. Perhaps then, I will feel the rhythms that are carrying me along.

This is a thought that I have entertained this week as I have noticed the seasonal change towards autumn. This awareness has also caused me to reflect upon the physical, emotional and habitual rhythms that are part of my current experience. Not that I have reached any epoch making conclusions. It feels enough to be slightly more aware of some of what is playing out. And just like meditating, this present moment awareness is transitory.

However, the glimpse provides a play of light over elements that are sometimes in the shadows. This clarity of vision maybe momentary, but at least I know it is there and available.

Letting Go

This is the seventh in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Acceptance, Non Striving, and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

The photos that illustrate this article are all aspects of my photography work that I have had to let go.

 

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Mindfulness courses and articles frequently encourage us to ‘let go’ of a habit, thought or feeling. Often the concept of letting go may be presented as something that is clearly understood and instinctive. If I am honest I have always struggled to both to understand and action the concept. I understand it in terms of stopping doing something, but to let go of a thought or feeling always felt like trying move water with just my hands: I understood what needed to be done, but couldn’t find a way to achieve it. I was becalmed by its apparent bewitching simplicity and distanced by the confidence of advocates who proclaimed, “Just let go!”

After having lived through some challenging times, whilst still continuing to practice and study mindfulness, I feel a little closer to the reality of ‘letting go’. Perhaps my reflections upon this may help you. I hope so.

I believe that letting go is an observation, a paying attention to ourselves and in particular our mind. It is recognising a pattern of behaviour, thinking or feeling, noting it and feeling where it resonates in your body. Breathing into this place and staying with the feeling, really connecting with the physical sensations bring us out of our mind and hopefully it may slowly begin to dissipate. This is not easy. It may take just one paragraph to explain, but it may take one or two lifetimes to achieve! It is, of course a practice.

Let’s take an example to illustrate what I mean. After an argument with a loved one we often feel great anger and imagine conversations we could have with our partner that would explain how we feel and ‘win’ the issue at the heart of the dispute. So, how do we ‘let go’ of the anger, of the need to win that imaginary argument that we keep playing in our mind?

Step 1: Recognise

Notice the thought/feeling/behaviour like you would an old friend or acquaintance. Smile with recognition, you know who this is. They are no threat, but they do like you to be a certain way that you would like to change.

Step 2: Breathe

Feel where you can experience how this is making you feel in your body. Check out the chest, stomach and throat. Maybe you have a particular area of your body that resonates. Notice the body sensations. Stay close to the physical. The palpitations, the fluttering, the ache. Whatever it is stay with it.

Step 3: Patience

Give yourself time. Be patient with your body and mind. This will change. Keep breathing, keep with the physical. Slowly, in time you will notice that the thought/feeling has faded.

Letting go is not easy. On one level each letting go is like a little death. Perhaps we cling to our behaviour/thought/feeling because we believe that its presence means that we are who we are. By ‘letting go’ of it we would be letting go of a part of us. We resist the release in much the same way as we resist change, each step bringing us closer to death. Perhaps ‘letting go’ is also like pruning, each time we work at changing ourselves, at releasing an unwanted thought or feeling, we prepare the way for future growth and for bounteous fruit!

 

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As applied to photography

There are two ways I see ‘letting go’ applied to photography. These are 1. in terms of the thoughts and feelings we have about our own work and 2. In the moment of creating a photograph.

1. You, the photographer.

Just as we have thoughts and feeling about any one of our life interests or endeavours, we have thoughts and feelings about our role as a photographer. These may extend from not even thinking of ourselves as ‘a photographer’ to being critical about every photo that we create. Our ways of being extend into our role as photographers. They have to. For if we are to take great photographs then we must allow ourselves to become personally involved. Our photographs must share something of our emotional connection to what we are seeing and photographing. Otherwise they are just like anybody else’s photos.

As photographers we experience uncertainty and doubt about our work and ability, but we also experience certainty and clarity. Much of the time we may waver between the two. We are learning and developing our craft. Such thoughts are part of the journey. It may help us along the way to both soften and let go of these thoughts and feelings if we are able to apply to same 3 step practice as I have explained earlier. Recognising our own critical voice, noticing where we feel this in the body and resting with those feelings as they slowly dissipate will help us to become more accepting and adventurous photographers.

2. The decisive moment

The final and most decisive element of ‘letting go’ as a photographer is in the moment you release the shutter. In that moment I aspire to be at one with what I see, for my camera to be an extension of my body and for the moment of release to be an intuitive coming together of technical knowledge, compositional skills and emotional connection, where nothing is thought and everything is felt. Easy huh? Now I need to go practice!

 

Non striving

This is the sixth in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Acceptance, Non Striving, and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

 

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Non striving is non doing. Meditation can be described as a non doing activity – if that is not a contradiction. We sit and we be. We are present and we are ourselves. What we experience we pay attention to. We may choose to return to the breath when we notice thoughts flit across our minds. We are non goal orientated.

Now this is all fine and dandy in theory. However, we live in a ‘doing’ culture. We have grown and developed in a society that values action, activity and suceeding. We need to feel that we are doing stuff and that we are ok. So when we begin to meditate we do see it as an activity, something to do. We must do our meditation. We must do certain things to ensure that we are doing the meditation correctly. We choose a certain place, time of day, length of sitting, structure to follow and so on. Then we try to get this all ‘right’.

Often then, especially as we begin meditating, we may feel discouraged. Our mind is incessantly busy. We don’t experience any quiet. Or we may choose to notice experiences that reinforce our belief that we are doing this meditation thing right. We may experience feelings, colours, great peace and any of these confirm our confident belief that we have got this meditation thing cracked. We are either doing it right or wrong! Either way we are doing it.

So how do we move from doing meditation and mindfulness to being and non striving? There is a blurred division between doing and being. In meditation we set out to meditate, we are doing the activity. But it is in our approach to being present with our experience, of non striving, of being non goal orientated that we move to being in the moment. We achieve this by paying attention, that is all. We pay attention to our present experience, we come into the present moment and we stay with our anchor – the breath or seeing (mindful photography) – we become what we already are, a human being.

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 As applied to Photography

Non striving as a concept applied to photography is a fine aspiration. As photographers we are very attuned to the processes we must follow to create a great photo. Our attention to technical and compositional choices is fundamental to the creation of a good photograph. But a great photograph requires something of us, something of our soul, something of who we are. To create memorable photographs we must marry the technical and compositional with our intuitive heart. How do we do this? By being in the moment.

That fine dividing line between doing and being is present at the moment of visual creation. The decisive moment that we choose to press the shutter is a moment that we are not holding tightly to our doing. We know, on a practised and confident level, that we have made the right technical choices. Our practice and training has equipped us with the skills to flow into creative compositional choices of the visual elements before us. All of this is not at the front of our mind as we simply rest in the moment of creating a photograph. We allow the photo to come into being. This being in the moment encourages an instinctive connection with our feelings, our very essence becomes part of our created photo. To photograph is to be, wholly and magificently, in the moment.

A final thought

All this being and doing reminds me of the old joke. On discussing the meaning of life Socarates was heard to say, “To be is to do.”

Plato disagreed and commented, “To do is to be”.

Frank overheard, “You’re both wrong boys.” he said. “The truth is……….do, be do bee do, do be do bee do..”

 

Acceptance

This is the fifth in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Acceptance, Non Striving, and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

 

Mindfulness encourages us to see things as they actually are in the present moment. As the present moment plays out, we practice noticing our feelings, our physical sensations and the thoughts that flit across our mind.  It may well be that we don’t actually like what we are experiencing. We may try to avoid, distract or just deny the experience.

Acceptance is the quality that allows us to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages us to turn towards the difficult experience. To sit with the feelings, sensations and thoughts, allowing them to ebb and flow and slowly, bit by bit allowing them a little space in our lives.

Mindfulness offers a practice to support living through this experience. In the secular mindfulness practice this can be described as a meditation that invokes wishing yourself and others well. This was developed from the Buddhist practice of Maitri – loving kindness or compassion to oneself and others. These practices encourage us to be compassionate to our present experience,. To accept ourselves: in all the glory and the grime.

Tara Brach (meditation teacher and psychologist) describes this as “Radical Acceptance, which means clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.”

Carl Rogers (psychologist) wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

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As applied to photography

We can practice acceptance through photography in two key ways. The primary opportunity is the use of photography practice as a method of understanding and processing our current experience. In The Mindful Photographer I offer mindful photography practices and assignments that encourage a tuning in to your present moment experience, particularly how you are feeling and representing these experiences through photos.

This can be achieved with an understanding how of elements of photography composition can represent emotion. This includes knowledge of representational ideas for colour, shape, tone and so on, as well as the use of visual metaphors and symbols to communicate ideas and feelings.

On a more instinctive level we can also practice responding photographically to our environment when we are experiencing a strong emotion; creating photographs that spring from an intuitive response. These may well include a knowledge of the visual language of a photograph, as described above, but our response is less planned and controlled and may run contrary to popular ideas. Resting instead on how the visual experience resonated with how we felt.

The second opportunity is to understand and accept the kind of photographer (and person) we are. This is partly about what it is that we like to create photographs of, and partly about what those photographs can say about ourselves, as well as about the subject. How the outer world can reflect our inner world. This idea, of using photography as a vehicle for personal inquiry, I will begin exploring in a Mindful Photography course called ‘Being’ that will be available in 2016. Sign up for the Newsletter (top right column) if you want to keep in touch with developments.

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The Photos

The photos that accompany this article were created as a response to feelings I experienced when finding out about events that occurred in my life during 1972. It was difficult to connect with how I felt with these events, some 40+ years later. However, I was able to walk, think about the events and connect with how they made me feel now, and respond by taking photos of my environment. The editing process also formed part of this experience on this occasion.

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Mindfulness in the media

This year The Guardian has carried two articles relating to an impeding 7 year study by Oxford University and University College London on the effects of mindfulness on 7,000 11 to 16 year olds. The two articles demonstrate two of the prevailing attitudes in our media to Mindfulness: factual reportage or ill informed sensationalism dressed up as entertainment.

I have provided the links above for your enlightenment. Both are entertaining reads, which after all is the function of a journalist, and they are (understandably) a product of their time and culture. There is another type of modern media mindfulness article which exists, the ‘mindfulness will cure all known ills’ type.

I have written before about this media interest in all things mindful  (McMindfulness revisited) so I am not going to go over old ground. I just want to say one thing.

I see mindfulness as a doorway. Once you pass through, begin a regular meditation practice and slowly start to bring more present awareness to each moment of your life, something changes. The changes are small and incremental. They involve you developing new habits. In the language of neuroscientists, you are creating new neural pathways. These new paths of thinking are like treading an off road track alongside your normal motorway route. They maybe slower going and somewhat unfamiliar. However, with patience and commitment, new ways of thinking and being are created.

The 7 year study will be studying this very thing. During early teenage years the part of the brain (the frontal lobe) that mindfulness can influence is subject to major development. Won’t it be interesting to see how many of the 7,000 teenagers both last the course and have significant benefits over time?

Trust

This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness practice. The 7 attitudes are detailed in Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and are Non Judging, Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Trust, Non Striving, Acceptance and Letting Go. Each article will be a personal reflection about that attitude, both from the perspective of mindfulness generally and mindful photography particularly. Each will be tagged ‘7 attitudes’ so that you can find them all using the tag search in the blog’s right hand column.

Mindfulness perspective

Mindfulness practice encourages you to trust your feelings. Your practice is personal to you. By trusting your own authority and guidance, confidence in your experience gathers. As you tune in to the experience in your body and mind, you develop an understanding of what is happening. Your ability to trust in your experience grows.

This may exhibit in a greater understanding of how to support your body. If you practice yoga or any sport, trust in your intuitive body response, watch it and follow its guidance, you will support your body’s development.

I am able to speak from experience, as someone who heard the messages from his own body, but paid them no heed. As a committed long distance runner I had plenty of physical indications that my body was stretched. If I had trusted that body wisdom, the physical challenges I now experience would not have developed.

Trust your experience. Trust your body. Trust your mind.

 

Trust as applied to Mindful Photography

There is a delicate balance to be struck as a photographer: between learning, practicing and trusting. As we travel the 10,000 hour journey towards mastery (Malcom Gladwell, Outliers), we are encouraged to learn study and practice our craft. We listen to wise experts, read fabulous books, follow great courses and practice our newly learnt skills.

Throughout this journey there is an implied thought, that what you are learning is how you should take photographs. And to a large extent this is true. We all need to master the technical and compositional skills. But if we are ever to produce personal, unique and authoritative work we must listen to our own heart and mind. We must follow our own intuitive guide.

‘Listening to your heart’ means tuning in to your feelings about what you are photographing. It means slowing down, speeding up and letting go. Paying heed to the technical necessities, holding the compositional choices lightly and then letting them all go in the moment you create a photograph. Something has to flow through you. This ‘something’ is guided by trust. Trust allows this paradox space. Mistakes sometimes create un-imagined possibilities. Great photographs spring from a framework of skill infused with inspiration, guided by instinct and held in trust.

Trust in your abilities. Trust in your feelings. Loosen the shackles of control

Fear 2

Many of our reactions to life, our choices and our behaviours are generated by fear. The fear could be fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, fear of a thing, fear of an event, fear of a decision and many more. Fear is the gift of our ego. Fear is the furnace that burns deep in our breast fueling thoughts that we are separate and precious and deserve more.

Fear creates stress and as I have discussed in my previous post stress generates a physical response in our body: the fight or flight response. This response sets us up to function at our highest physical level (to run away) but if the stress is an ongoing one a whole other debilitating set of body and mind responses may be set in motion.

So how can we support ourselves in a stressful situation? Can mindfulness help? And if so, how?

Fear Arising

This week had at its mid point an event that felt like the end of a chapter. My chronic larynx condition has deteriorated over the last few months and has been particularly challenging recently. This has resulted in more steroids than my body has liked and many visits to health professionals. Not having enough breath has been debiliating and the improvements bought by steroids have been short term and have not improved the underlying situation.

During this period I have been coming to terms with the idea that my quality of life can only be improved by some surgical intervention. I have for nearly ten years resisted the medical fraternity’s desire to perform a tracheostomy on me. The operation, whilst a life saver when your airway is blocked, has always seemed a barbaric solution to my problem.

However, the recent worsening of my breathing has led me to believe that it could bring an improvement to the quality of my life. Not getting enough air slows everything down, lowers my energy, makes me old before my time. My consultant at Swansea’s Singleton Hospital has often suggested the operation, but recently he asked if I would like a second opinion from Mr Sandhu. This surgeon heads up the top larynx reconstruction team in Europe and is based in Charing Cross Hospital, London.

The appointment to see Mr Sandhu was on Wednesday this week. As soon as it came through it felt like it would be the confirmation of my fears. That I would need a tracheostomy and I would have to learn to deal with the implications. Of course I hoped that there might be other possibilities that weren’t so draconian, but mostly what I felt was nervous and fearful.

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Mindfulness in action

I was fortunate that the lovely Rebecca went to London with me. Her love, support and determination to get the highest quality medical help have been an essential element of coping with the situation. We traveled up by coach on the Tuesday, the short notice of the appointment meaning that the train costs would be prohibitive (£200! The coach was a ridiculous £37 for two) and stayed in Hammersmith near the hospital.

Next morning, after a lovely outdoor breakfast, we walked down to the hospital. In the waiting room I didn’t notice how I was, but on reflection I know I was nervous and uncertain.

It is in the middle of this situation that mindfulness can help. There are two key steps

Step 1 – Pay attention

Notice what is happening in your body and mind. What can you feel in your body? Increased heart rate? Stomach turning? Faster breathing? Getting hotter? Acknowledge this experience. Feel it.

What thoughts are passing through your mind? Are you playing out scenarios? Are imaginary conversations or happenings flying through your mind. Notice them. Don’t follow the thought, just notice that it is there.

Step 2 Breathe into the body’s sensations

Breathe in and out. Breathe in and out where you can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. Experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as you live through this, you settle back into the present. Slowly, you begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.

And me? Did mindfulness help me? I was called into see Mr Sandhu, Beci came in too. We sat and went through the background. How the condition started and how it progressed. Then he examined me with an endoscopy (camera up nose and into throat) and general physical examination.

At some point during this experience, after the endoscopy I think, I briefly came into the space totally. I noticed my feet on the floor, felt the floor through my shoes. I felt my bum on my seat. I noticed one breath in and out.

Then he asked a question, “Are you prepared to have an operation?”

“Yes” I answered in trepidation.

“We can fix this” he said.

This bald, confident statement was a shocking relief. Here was a man with certainty. He explained that it might be possible to do some laser work and/or an operation to widen the trachea. This later option would result in a ‘whisper’ of a voice, but a far more open airway and no tracheostomy. My consultant in Swansea had ruled this out as an option.

What a relief! This is hugely positive news. There still is a way to go, including some investigation under anaesthetic, to fully determine the options. I will still need to push to ensure that Mr Sandhu’s team are the ones who help me and I need to maintain a low stress life until the definitive operation, but the future looks a lot more positive.

And mindfulness? Mindfulness is a tremendous help, but it is a practice and one that needs practice!

Fear 1

Fear is very much on my mind. This is a significant week for me and I am aware that there is a considerable swirling of fear swooping in and out of my mind. As part of living through this period with acceptance, compassion and wise reactions I am attempting to lean into the fear rather than run away from or resist its insistent voice.

This intention has been supported by a kind friend who has shared some very helpful talks by Tara Brach on the subject. I am listening, reflecting and re-listening to these talks and as I am finding them very helpful I thought that I would share them here and then later in the week consider how they have helped me.

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 1

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 2

A mindful photography practice

This morning I practiced responding to the feeling of fear in an instinctive practice. My inclination was that I needed to get close to my subjects but be wide open. I chose to attach my widest angle lens (20mm) and headed to the beach. I responded instinctively to my environment, both on route and on location. Once there I took off my sandals, felt the sand between my toes and went with the flow. When Monty stopped to investigate his environment, I did the same. These are the four photos that resonated with me when I down loaded and edited them. A black and white conversion felt essential.

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