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.

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.

Caswell_Panorama1-w

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

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.

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.

 

Pop up talent

 

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!

 

Llanmadoc Mindful Photography-19

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!

 

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.

 

IMG_0747

 

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.

 IMG_0744

 

 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..”

 

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.”

IMG_0005-w

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.

IMG_9992final-w

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.

IMG_9993-w

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?

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

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.

IMG_2478

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 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.

fear-1

fear-2

fear-3

fear-4

I first thought of this idea as a literal photography activity, actually choosing to create photographs from a different perspective. In the example above, as if I was Monty, a chunky Bijon Frise viewing the world about 12-18″ from the floor. In itself I could see the potential for photographs that felt different. I later realised that the activity and photos themselves could also work as a metaphor; that they could represent an intention to see the world in a new way.

A photo activity

This is the photography activity you can try. Your mission is to create photographs from the perspective of your pet – a cat or dog would be ideal. I imagined that in order to create a Monty like view I would need to take photographs from his height and in the places he frequented.

I also considered what camera lens combination I was going to use. Dogs have a wider peripheral vision than us and although I have no idea what kind of focal length their eyesight is (ours is around 50mm) I decided to settle on a wide angle view.

I chose to use my Canon G7X on its widest view (equivalent to about 24mm) so that I could make use of the hinged screen. This enabled me to hold the camera low, pointing in a ‘Monty manner’, and angle the view screen so I could see what I was potentially receiving.

You could chose to use any camera/lens combination, but I feel that it is wise to then stick to that combination to create a series of photos from the same perspective. This will create a ‘feel’ or ‘style’ which you could identify as the ‘pet perspective’! As in the photo above, you can imagine how it must be to be confronted by a much larger dog. That the giant hound actually ran away from Monty is also hinted at in the lack of eye contact.

I invite you to try out this activity. Be lighthearted. Create a ‘pet perspective’ and play with it. Imagine you are the pet. Create lots of photos. Share your favourites with me (return of email) and I will share mine.

Montys perspective-8

Changing your perspective – photographically

Viewing the world from a different perspective enables us to see our ‘normal’ world differently. In photography we often call this ‘point of view’ (POV). It is one of the guidelines for effective composition. By changing our POV we change the shapes, colours, patterns and perspective that our camera sees.

I was reminded of this a couple of nights ago when watching the excellent documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘. Vivian Maier was an eccentric American with some compulsive habits. One of these was taking photos and when she died, at a fortunate auction, an enormous quantity of developed and undeveloped photographs was discovered amongst her other large collections of boxes, newspaper cuttings, accessories and all sorts.

I am going to focus on the impression her photos make on me because of her POV, but I do recommend that you catch the movie or have a look at the website created by the man (John Maloof) who first discovered her photographs. The website is full of great photos and fascinating stories.

Vivian Maier was a prolific photographer. Much of her best work in the 50s and 60s was taken using a Rollieflex twin lens camera. She used this camera out and about on the street. The camera has a waist level finder which, as the name suggests, means that you look down into the camera held at your waist to compose the photograph.

Many of Vivian’s photographs provide the subject with a sense of power. She often was quite close to the subject and was shooting up into their face. This provides a towering perspective, something that then creates a style that is noticeable in her work.

Changing your perspective – in life

We are the product of our experiences. Those experiences have shaped who we are. They also determine how we experience the world moment to moment. Habit and familiarity guide us to a certain view of the world and each moment in it.

I know that the world is how it is. Until some fundamental change alters my world seeing events, moments and experiences from a different perspective is challenging. Why might we want to see a different perspective? Maybe because we want change, in ourselves, in our circumstances. Maybe we want to shed a little light on a darker corner of our world.

I have found this difficult. It is challenging enough to see a new perspective when a key aspect of your life changes, never mind choosing to see an experience, before it changes, in a new light. The cultivation of certain attitudes can help. There are 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness that support our ability to be totally in the moment and to experience the reality of a situation or experience. This reality is often a new perspective!

The 7 attitudes are non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. That is some list. As part of my own mindfulness practice and life enquiry I have started to write about these attitudes, their relevance to my life and to photography. You can find them via the tag cloud ‘7 attitudes’ in the right hand column of this blog. I hope that you find them of interest and I would welcome your thoughts.

This week I have mostly been reading “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a swashbuckling blast through the relatively brief history of Homo sapiens, the branch of the Homo (Human) genus that we belong to. It sets out to explain how we have managed to be so dominant on Planet Earth, in a relatively short period of time.

Its main theme is that Homo sapiens dominates the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The book argues that we can do this because we have a unique ability to believe in things that exist only in our own imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. The book explains how all large scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – are ultimately based on fiction. Feisty stuff and guaranteed to get you thinking about how you came to be who you are. Or maybe not?

Men being men

Just before I left the house this morning, to retreat and reflect, one of our Sitting Group members turned up, thinking that we were meeting today. Phil has been considering setting up a “Men’s Group” in Swansea and had heard that I was interested in being involved.

Now, before you leap off thinking that it’s all about male bonding rituals and deep and meaningful chats about football, here is a little summary (from this website)

Men’s Group explores what it means to be a man and supports men to:
* Clarify their direction and purpose
* Strengthen their integrity
* Become more trustworthy
* Be clear and grounded
* Be strong and consistent
* Know what it means to be at their edge and be held accountable
* Find peace, inwardly and outwardly

Sapiens and Sex

In his book Mr Harari clearly defines that there is one biological group Homo Sapiens and two sexes. He distinguishes sex from gender because gender has cultural interpretations. This came to mind when I was discussing the purpose of a men’s group with Phil.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for men to gather, share stories, listen and exchange ideas, is to understand how our gender has been shaped by current culture and to determine how we come to be who we are. This works for me and fits in perfectly with my own ongoing self enquiry.

Photography as a tool

I have started to use photography as a tool for self enquiry. I have begun to explore this area in The Being Course that is part of the online course, The Mindful Photographer. Over 2016 I am exploring using mindful photography as a tool for self enquiry. This initially will be in the form of a series of personal projects which I later hope to shape into a personally supported online course.

Of course, in order to do this, I shall have to continue my own primary research: continuing to explore mindfulness, practicing mindful photography, joining a men’s group, creating photos that represent how I feel and sharing it all via my blog. I guess that I am using you, my newsletter and blog as part of my continuing voyage; to boldly go where many of us fear to tread, but some of us get thrown into when it all goes pear shaped!

Today I have escaped to my in law’s cottage in Mumbles for a ‘retreat’. Normally, when I go on retreat I am avoiding all technological contact, sitting quietly a lot, walking and photographing. I usually stay at a retreat centre in the Brecon Beacons, but they were full.

My intention this time is similar but different. I am first spending today reflecting on the week, as a way of understanding where I am today. Initially I have started this by writing my weekly Newsletter (there’s a sign up box on the right) and in that I have reflected on homo sapiens, men’s groups and photography. A seemingly diverse group of topics but all part of my week and today.

Now having released that part of my week I am ready to land here. This is my final post I will be writing for 2 days (Sunday’s is already scheduled). It is time to turn off, tune in and see what arises. You should try it.

It is all quiet in the house. Beci has taken the hound, Monty, out for his morning walk. Taylor (no.1 son) is off to college and India (no.1 daughter) is asleep in bed, practicing being a teenager who has finished college for the year already. (Ah, the benefits of choosing to study all art based AS levels)

So I thought that I would take advantage of the space and fired up brain (I am a morning person) to write a little blog post.

Sitting group

Every two weeks on a Friday morning Beci hosts a ‘Sitting group’ in our house. This is a group of like minded people who come together to meditate and share wise words! The idea of this group comes from the Buddhist tradition of a ‘Sangha’, a supportive group or community who share the teachings of Buddha. Usually, these are led by one person – the teacher.

Our group is a little looser and very inclusive. We do share teachings, thoughts, poems and quotes that are inspired by Buddhism. However, we also share non secular and other traditions’ ideas and writings.

The group’s underpinning concept is that everybody who comes takes a turn at being the ‘guru’! Often this means that the individual shares something that is relevant for them at that time. The shared thoughts are like the icing on the cake and provide the possibility of an anchor for our busy minds when we are meditating.

The voluntary ‘leader/guru’ doesn’t have to share much. However, they do have to keep time and ring the bell. Once at the beginning and once at the end of each 30 minutes.

Thoughts 4 Today

It is now a few hours later. Sonja led the group and shared a simple and grounding meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh (The Blooming of a Lotus). His 5 stage meditation is followed over 5 breaths in and out. The first word is held on the in breath, the second on the out breath. All five stages are followed and then repeated. The book does give more detail and explanation.

Breath In      Breath Out

Flower          Feeling Fresh

Mountain      Strong

Still Water    Reflecting

Space           Free

Reflections

Having a sitting group is a supportive practice. It feels supportive at the time and its regularity has its own rhythm which melds comfortably with your own practice. I have not always been able to attend regularly but having changed my own working commitments I am now intending it to be a key part of my practice.

I recommend it to you and if you live in Swansea or close and would like to join us contact me.

We are beset from all sides. All media streams, from the traditional newspapers to the ground breaking social media streams, are awash with General Election stuff. Opinions, rants and justifications abound. Some of it is entertaining. Some of it is balanced. Much of it is sensationalised or heavily influenced by those who control the message.

Immigration and economic planning are the subjects most sabres are rattled at. Leaders debate. Media types postulate. The general public? Ah, the general public. What of the general public?

I was just walking through our city centre square. Past the feeble fountains my eye was caught by the TV screen. I say ‘caught’ I should probably say assailed. It is a giant screen that gazes ominously over the square dwellers and the volume is always turned up to 11. Anyway, politics was on the agenda, in particular the SNP’s stance on immigration – in favour of limits that do not discourage fine and talented people from moving to Scotland!

I walked on through the square and noticed that apart from me the general public were going about their business, paying not one bit of attention to the interesting debate. OK, I admit Scottish immigration policy is not going to be big on a Welsh City resident’s agenda. Think of their lack of attention as more as a visual metaphor for ‘not caring about voting’. That’s what I saw and felt.

IMG_2120

 

Last election in 2010 35% of the electorate did not vote. Will more vote this time? Will somebody please stop our death by a thousand cuts.

Sorry. I promised myself when I started writing this that I would not dump my political views. They appear to have slipped out. It is difficult not to allow the anger out (and not healthy of course), particularly since I finished reading The Establishment by Owen Jones I have become more focussed in my anger about our country’s political health.

Ironically, at the same time as reading The Establishment I  have also been reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn. I say ironically because the title is apposite. It does feel a little like we are catastrophe living. The book itself is about living in the present moment – mindfulness – and how that can help you live with the stress in your life. That encouragement is essential. Mindfulness is all about what you are experiencing now. Well, what I am experiencing now is anger and frustration.

IMG_2117

 

I am angry that the global financial crisis has led to the least well off suffering. Whilst the corporations, fat cats, media moguls, politicians and the seriously well off continue to thrive.

There I have said it. I feel a lot better now. There is one more thing though. You must vote. I know that there is a limited choice available, but you must vote for the least terrible of that disappointing choice. You cannot let this scale of public/state cuts continue. Your vote matters.

Change

This week I have chosen to reflect on change as I have been both buffeted by the winds of change and I am also making changes to key aspects of my life.

It is not coincidental that I used a weather metaphor to describe change. As I started to write this I was considering what simile I could use to compare to change. I decided upon the weather. It may be that you live in apart of the world where the weather is generally settled and predictable. Just for the sake of my simile imagine you live in the UK!

Why is change like the weather?

  • It is reasonably predictable and yet we sometimes unaware of how it actually is. (Just this week I have noticed people wearing shorts and t shirts, because it was warm last week. Whilst it has been sunny this week, it was often cooler than 10°c)
  • We often know what weather is coming, but we choose to ignore the warning signs and carry on regardless
  • Sometimes it transforms so gradually over a few days that it is only when we are at the end point that we realise it has altered
  • Sometimes it is entirely unexpected and may throw our plans and lives into disarray
  • Sometimes it is just like the previous day, sometimes it is quite different. Sometimes it is just like the previous day, but we feel different about it
  • Some weather we perceive to be ‘good’, other weather ‘bad’. ‘Bad’ weather may be essential. ‘Good’ weather may lead to drought. Our perception and understanding of what we are experiencing can itself change
  • Above all there is a lot of it. It is a constant. We know that it will always be there, but we let that fact slip through our knowing sometimes

edge-dip3

Change, mindfulness and photography

As you know I have embraced the idea that photography can be practised mindfully. And whilst I am currently sharing some of those practices via The Mindful Photographer I am also continuing to develop the concept.

This development has recently become more charged. What I mean is that the change in my life has made me realise (finally) that I need to embrace mindfulness in every aspect of my life. My relationships, my work and my play.

My recent health crisis was one of those life events that was predictable. I have a chronic health condition (swollen trachea and vocal chords) that affects my breathing and voice. What is most challenging is when I carry on regardless (of the weather!) and have an acute situation.

Upon reflection it was easy to see that by continuing to behave in a similar manner (i.e. as if I did not have a chronic condition) my body was not coping. The chronic and acute situations were affecting all aspects of my life: my relationships, my day to day living, my work…

Something had to change.

One key change is that I have released the Photential activities that were most stressful (workshops) and will be solely focussing on my online provision. My future blog posts will directly reflect my attempts to live a more mindful life, with particular reference to photography.

I will share ideas, wisdom, successes and failures. I will offer mindful photography practices for you to try and share your photos if you would like to share. Above all I will be open and authentic about what it takes to live a mindful life. Where possible I will reflect this in my photography.

Over the next few months I will be developing new learning materials that will continue the explorations of a Mindful Photographer. If you would like to get regular updates you can subscribe to the Photential Newsletter (bottom of this page). If you love the road I am following please share with your friends, and like my Twitter and Facebook pages (see the bottom of the page).

As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. You are the world. I am the world. Change starts here.

The diptych photos in this post are part of a set that explored using a visual metaphor for change.