This is the first 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 post 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.
A little voice
Each of us seems to have a little voice in our head that runs a commentary on our life. Quite often this little voice assumes a critical perspective, sending thoughts that judge the current experience across our consciousness. These thoughts may often be judgments about ourselves (“I can’t do this”, I’ll never be able to sit still”, “I find this boring”) or about others (He’s selfish, “She always interrupts”).
When we are sat practicing meditation the frequency and loudness of the voice can become more apparent. Some describe this as a judging quality of mind. Not so much a quality though, more a habit. Built up over many years of trying to shape the world to our will, we all expect each day to develop in a certain way. We have our routines and commitments that we expect to unfold in the usual manner. When they don’t, because life isn’t like that, we are unsettled and pass judgement. The most common one being, “I don’t like this.”
As we meditate we have the opportunity to notice this habit, note it as ‘judging’ or ‘thinking’ and return to the breath. This instruction sounds simple, and it is in theory, but its consistent application is a challenge because these judging thoughts can be quite sticky. We can quickly get wrapped up in a judgement, that then leads to a thought stream about how we would like the situation to be different. Noticing this and returning to the breath is our practice.
The encouragement is to be an impartial witness to our thoughts. Watching what our mind does, with apparently little or no direction! We are only required to notice the thought and not act upon it it. Instead we return to the breath.
As applied to photography
In mindful photography our ‘Seeing’ is our anchor rather than the breath. As we practice, walking with our camera and following the 4 stage seeing practice, each time we notice a thought or judgement, we return to the seeing in much the same way as we return to the breath when following a sitting practice. This embraces exactly the same challenge as traditional meditation or any other mindfulness practice. We notice the judging thought, and return to our practice.
Of course in photography there are some quite common judgments that you might experience as you are learning. These could include: “I can never remember what ………does”, “I don’t know what I am doing”, ” My photos are not good enough”, “I’m no good at this”.
All of these critical thoughts are common when we are learning and practicing a new skill. We do like to beat ourselves up along the path to competence and later, expert. Of course the most common judgement in photography is that the photograph is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Now this is a fundamental barrier that it is helpful to recognise in ourselves and in photography. Whilst there are guidelines for effective photographic composition and it is true that we benefit from learning them, they are only guidelines.
If we are ever to create photographs that share something of how we find the world, we have to be able to let these guidelines rest lightly on our consciousness, to almost let them go their own way (more on this when we get to the 7th attitude ‘Letting go’). In the meantime here is a quote I love that goes some way to holding judgement lightly in photography.
“I don’t know what good composition is…. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness.” – Diane Arbus
For a fabulous resource sharing some of Diane Arbus’s most intriguing work visit Artsy’s Arbus page