How it was
What follows below are my reflections from week 6 of the MBSR 18 months ago. After that I consider how the ideas and practice suggested have been applied (or not) since then.
Week 6 of the MBSR with CMWR in Swansea University centered on staying aware and balanced during stressful communication/relationships. The opportunity to practice mindfulness when we communicate with others is one that can support our effectiveness as communicators and the relationship itself.
The session focused initially on some practical steps. We started with a short sitting meditation to ground ourselves and then engaged in some listening exercises to experience what happens when we try to listen. Of course, whilst we are engaged in an exercise, ‘trying to listen’ we may be a little more tuned into the process than when we’re engaged in regular conversation.
Effective conversation requires us to talk and listen. During most conversations we are listening, but we are also plotting! Often we are engaged in a process of thinking about/judging what the other is saying and what we are going to say. So the first step in becoming more mindful in any conversation is to be aware that this is happening.
In a stressful conversation the thinking/judging may be heightened, our feelings (thoughts linked to an emotion) may be quite loud! Our opportunity is to become aware of this. To notice the thought, and perhaps to be aware of the fear that is generating it. These may be familiar thoughts (if the conversation is with a long term relationship partner) and familiar feelings. These may generate familiar thinking patterns and responses. The first step is to recognise that this has happened; maybe we are able to name the underpinning fear or habitual reaction (to ourselves).
In these moments it may be helpful to follow our breath in and out, to feel gravity in our body: our feet on the ground, our bottom on its seat. We may be able to tune in to the physical reactions the conversations is creating in our body. Our thoughts may generate reactions in the throat, chest or belly. If we can tune into this physical experience and we follow our breath, we can root ourselves in the present moment and give ourselves a little space to respond with understanding.
This practice bring us totally into the present moment, it may help us to be able to listen to the other with greater compassion, possibly even to understand their perspective. It will also support the opportunity to be aware of our feelings and to express them assertively, but without aggression. We may be able to say, ‘I feel so angry when you say that.’ Rather than, ‘You make me so angry.’
This is all easy to explain and even to understand theoretically . Applying it when we are engaged in deep conversation is challenging. Which is why mindfulness is called a practice. It may be helpful to actually practice noticing our thoughts and feelings. To engage in a meditation practice that has our mind’s events as its focus rather than the breath.
Here’s the practice.
- Sit in your normal meditation pose.
- Follow the breath for a few minutes until you are settled and present.
- Let go of following the breath and just notice your mind.
- Watch thoughts come to your attention. Don’t follow them, just watch them leave.
- If you become lost in a thought, note it and return to the breath for a moment. Then return to observing your mind.
- You may notice a pattern to your thoughts. Notice if they are linked to past or future events. You could even say to yourself, ‘past’, then return to your observing.
- You may notice feelings, which are thoughts linked to an emotion. Note the feeling, maybe even observe any physical reactions to the feeling. Then return to your observing.
Here’s an excellent article from Life Hack that offers ‘Mindful conversation in 9 easy steps’
Here’s another one from Insanity Mind that offers a listening response technique that we practiced on the MBSR course. ‘How to be more present: Mindful conversation’
How it is now
18 months on how mindful are my conversations? I’d say pretty present, but perhaps my fellow communicators should be asked! I do know that the practices suggested have had an impact in my deepening mindfulness generally and in the development of my approach to mindful photography.
Whilst I am aware of a broadening of mindfulness throughout my life I am also aware that I still forget to pay attention regularly. I occasionally forget things, miss things happening or zone out. However, I do more regularly catch this happening, and tune back in to the moment. It remains an ongoing practice and always will. It is a life practice and the attendant personal judgement when I do lose the moment is beginning to soften. I remain committed to the ongoing practice.
Ripples of these practices, ideas and intentions pass through my photography developments. In the last year I have written a book on the subject (to be shared during 2017) and I am currently developing my reinterpreted online course (live in Spring 2017).
In both the book and course I explain how similar practices can be integrated using your camera. Not so much the mindful conversation, of course, more the attention to the moment, and your thoughts and feelings experienced whilst you are creating photos.
Both photo thinking and present feelings are aspects of life that are an opportunity to develop mindfulness through the creation of a photograph. All will become clear this year. Stay tuned!
Week 3 of the MBSR begins the sharing of ideas and practices to help ground us in the present. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.
How it was
Week 3 centered upon practices that support us to be more grounded in our body and the world around us. By being more aware of our physical sensations and our mind states we are allowed to be more present – right here and right now. The key practices we were introduced to were mindful movement practices and a practice that encourages us to take time to pause.
Sinead provided an introductory taste to 3 mindful movement practices: yoga, qigong and walking meditation. Each practice has the capacity to bring us totally into our body.
I have been practicing yoga for over 10 years, once or twice a week. I find that during the normal 1.5 hour class it can often take 1.4 hours before I find that the mind has quietened. Sometimes, even this is elusive. However, it is true that by focusing on guided body movements and postures in sync with the breath that we do come more into the body and often the mind’s chatter is reduced, slowed or calmed as we come totally into our body.
Qigong is a Chinese practice, much like yoga, intended to align body, breath and mind for health and meditation practice. It is practiced with slow rhythmic movements in time with the breath and is designed to move Qi (body energy) through distinct areas of the body. There are many forms of Qigong but all have key principles in common, these are: intentional movement, rhythmic breathing, awareness, visualisation, chanting/sound, softness, solid stance, relaxation, balance and counterbalance. There are also advanced goals: equanimity, tranquility and stillness.
Walking meditation is a practice I find very grounding. My experience is that is best done barefoot in a quiet flat space. Each step is moved through in a slow attentive manner, feeling the stretching, bending, changing balance and weight as your body adjusts and moves forward. Last night I walked on the warm bare concrete slabs of the balcony area of our venue. Through each step I felt the warmth of the stone moving across my skin. The pull of gravity as the rootedness moved through different parts of my feet: the pads, the toes, the heel. Rolling through a balanced awareness I came totally into my feet, oblivious to what surrounded me.
Time to pause
The ‘Three Step Breathing Space’ is a practice to bring you back to the moment. The first step is awareness and brings us into the present moment by adopting an upright posture. We can close our eyes and ask ourselves, “What am I experiencing right now?” We tune in to our bodily sensations, our thoughts and our feelings. We acknowledge this experience, stay with it and don’t try to change it.
The second step is gathering. In this step we return to feeling our breath in our body. In the rising of the belly/chest or the cool passage of air at our nostrils. we are aware of the breath in and the breath out. Totally in the present moment.
The third step is expanding. Now we expand the sensations of the breath to the whole body. We feel the whole body being breathed. We are totally in the moment and in this moment we make our decision based on where we are right now.
This practice is perfect when something unexpected and unwelcome suddenly occurs. In the moment that we would react outwardly, we go inward, and follow the three steps. At the third step then we decide upon our action. It’s like an upgraded ‘count to ten’ practice!
How it is now
Mindfulness and it’s application throughout my life has grown since 2015. But I’m not kidding myself, it remains both a practice and a habit that is developing.
It is my intention to sit daily. I generally get up at 7 do some yoga stretches and sit on my mat. Yesterday I did not. I was up a little late and had some work development stuff on my mind. Instead of sitting I attended to the work, but there was a difference. I was aware of both the choice and the attention I paid to the work task. I was immersed and attentive to how I was and what I was engaged in.
Having a specific activity when you practice Mindfulness helps you to burn new neural pathways. You develop new habits, new ways of being. These then begin to influence how you are during other times and activities. Practicing is contagious. Creating positive habits and behaviours influences your ways of thinking, feeling and living. Or perhaps I should say it has that potential. It is a practice and you need to continue to pay attention. This is the heart of Mindfulness.
Now I get it. I understand what is happening. I still fail. Fail to pay attention. Forget something. But I do not beat myself up. I am practising, it is ongoing. I am ongoing, an ongoing creation. So are you. Keep practising it will pay off.
Week 2 is all about awareness. Awareness of the body and mind. In your busy western lives you move quickly through your day from task to task, achieving and doing. You are often so immersed in this task driven world that you pay little heed to its impact upon your body or the patterns of thought and feeling that your mind follows. If you are anything like me you may be doing a task or job, but your thoughts probably slip elsewhere from time to time; reviewing a past event or imagining a future happening.
Week 2 is about raising your awareness; paying attention to how you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling. This attention can be practiced during any task or activity, that is what makes it mindful.
What follows below is my post that I wrote just after the week 2 session. This explains my initial reactions and places it in a time and place in my life.
In the section after that I will consider how this mindful practice is progressing. How am I doing? Do I pay attention all the time? (clue here: don’t be daft!)
Week 2 thoughts from 2015
Week 2 of our Mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR) started in entirely different circumstances and continued in quite a different manner to Week 1. Last week the weather had been howling: gales and thundering rain showers. This week the sun was shining and the 5th floor balcony beckoned on arrival whispering, ‘come and soak up my sunshine’.
Last week had introduced mindful techniques that we practiced throughout the class. When I had returned home I found myself to be very still and happily sat in the lounge, dog on lap, in the quiet dying light until all the family arrived home half an hour later.
This week I had a diary clash. The session was always going to be different as I chose to keep a previously arranged and paid for cinema visit with a mate. I was with the group for the first hour when we experienced our responses to a couple of emotive stories. This spurred a discussion about our experience of our body and mind’s reactions to life events, where we highlighted the body’s responses to stress and discussed the kind of emotions and thoughts experienced during the reading of each story.
All of this was designed to raise our awareness of the role our perception plays in generating and interpreting events, emotions and thoughts. We were encouraged to notice the body’s response to an event or situation and note the thoughts; like fear, judgement, possible actions, outcomes etc. In noticing the thought and where it was felt in the body an opportunity to let the thought soften and melt away could be encouraged.
Now, I know that this ‘letting go’ of thoughts, particularly those entrenched in habitual patterns, is not an easy task. But the task of noting that you recognise the thought and where it has come from is the first step in allowing it space to fade away. I know it works. It’s just not easy, to catch yourself heading off on a familiar track, but I am reminded that it is a practice. So I shall continue to practice.
Practicing Awareness in 2015
Today I am struggling to breathe. A combination of the Photomarathon day on Saturday and today’s high pollen count has aggravated my ability to breathe. The thoughts that then swirl are dominated by fear. Fear of not being able to breathe. Fear of the necessity to take steroids and the post medical reaction. Fear of the need for surgery. All of these rise and fall, along with a feeling of helplessness that these episodes generate.
I give myself a little space, get an increase in my hay fever medication and do a little gentle yoga. In this space I feel softer, less fearful. Which in itself also reduces stress on the body and helps my breathing to recover a little.
The period between completing the MBSR and now has been one of massive developments and change. In 2015 my chronic breathing condition had reached a crisis point and I was just about to embark on visits to one of the top throat reconstruction specialists in London.
At the first meeting with Mr Guri Sandhu I was very nervous. I remember sitting in his consultation room, laboured breathing and shaking with nerves. However, I noticed that I had the opportunity to practice. I focused on my feet on the ground, my backside on its seat and breathed to my belly. And kept with this focus until we started talking. The consultation was a turning point, but not for the reasons I initially thought.
After examining and talking to me Sandhu stated, with calm assurance, that he could fix me. He promised to return my breathing to a much improved place, but there would be a major compromise, I would be left with a mere whisper of a voice. At the time this felt like a relief and a way forward. Breathing was such a struggle. Now there was possibility of improvement.
Sandhu also highlighted my weight loss (nearly 2 stone – I am of slim build and average height) and stated that this was not connected to my breathing and should be investigated. It was this advice that changed my world. A later diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes was a surprise, but provided explanation for the ongoing acute attacks. Once I was established and used to the insulin the lights came on, a fog lifted from my mind and everything else began to unravel.
Since then the major life changes including; the end of my marriage, an intention to live with authenticity, health stability, new work opportunities, new relationship, new friendships, writing a book and much more have provided many opportunities to practice paying attention. I know that this is integral to how I want to live. However, I also know that it is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I have spent over 50 years laying down neural pathways that take my thoughts and feelings down familiar roads. Travelling along new paths, in the undergrowth off road, is hard going and I often stray back to the main road. But the practice remains. I meditate daily. I practice mindful photography weekly. I notice the one thing that I am doing, thinking or feeling and return to the present moment. It is a lifetime practice and one that will continue to bear fruit.
Last year I enrolled and completed the MBSR at Swansea University. At the time I blogged a little about my experiences. I will be revisiting these posts over the next few weeks to share my progress applying the ideas and practices to my life. Please share your thoughts and feelings too, the course is now hugely popular and is a fabulous introduction to living a mindful life.
My first week of attendance at the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course at Swansea University was in 2015 and at the time I was living with some serious difficulty. My chronic health condition (compromised breathing) was particularly challenging and the reasons for this were yet to be revealed. At the time there seemed to be a serious possibility that I would have to have major surgery that would leave me with the mildest whisper of voice, but improved breathing. Enrolling on the course was very much a support for living through this time. I already had a meditation practice and had developed the mindful photography philosophy that is now central to my life. But I saw the course as an opportunity to embrace mindfulness wholeheartedly through my life and maybe learn something new.
The MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) Course
This is an 8 week course which aims to introduce mindfulness practices into our lives, enabling us to be connected to the present moment in all of its glory and grime. It is believed that this connection and acceptance helps to reduce stress by encouraging us to be totally present, aware of the choices we make and their impact on our lives.
It is my intention to write a blog post for each of the eight weeks, summarising what we cover and, where relevant offering a mindful photography practice that supports that week’s intention.
Week One: Auto Pilot
Our first week’s theme was ‘Auto Pilot’. Our tutor, Sinead Brophy, explained that the intention of week 1 was to break us out of auto pilot and alert us to the present moment. Sinead explained what mindfulness was (attention to the present moment) and what it wasn’t (counselling, therapy, a happiness regime).
Over the course of the 2 hours + we were introduced to some mindful practices. These included a ten minute guided meditation, mindful eating and the body scan. Whilst I was already familiar with these practices I found the session really grounding and almost a return to ‘beginners mind’. It was helpful to revisit shorter simpler practices and when I returned home I found that I was much quieter (in my head) and content to sit in the lounge sharing the moment with my dog and not seeking any external stimulation (TV, computer, book)
We were also given homework, which includes: a 20 minute meditation, 1 mindful eating practice per day and 1 mindful practice per day (taking a shower, cleaning teeth etc.) This all seems best done in the morning. At least then the busy-ness of the day will not deflect and there is also a chance that the practices will encourage a more mindful approach to the day.
This fine theory was destroyed when before leaving for work, but after meditation, mindful shower and mindfully eaten cereal, I forgot to clean my teeth! Ah well, it is a practice.
My Mindful Life
So after 11 years of mindful practice and the MBSR Course have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Oh no. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of living.
Through my work with mindful photography I balance photography practices that develop mindfulness with an awareness of how life’s choices are determined. I still slip in auto pilot sometimes, 56 years of habitual behaviours has wired some neural pathways that shout to be used. But I do now have more practices, more tools to support my intention, and through this, occasionally more awareness of each moment.
Mindfulness is now recognised as practice that is supportive to all aspects of our lives and something that can enable us to respond positively to stress, rather than react habitually. It is for this reason that many corporations, public sector organisations and businesses encourage staff to follow mindfulness sessions at work. With this is mind I have developed a Mindful Photography course for employed staff.
What is Mindful Photography?
Mindful Photography is the development of mindfulness through photography. The sessions can make use of mobile phone cameras or staff can bring in their own cameras. Either way the experiences and activities will encourage an attention to the moment whilst also exploring skills that are relevant to work. These skills include: team work, self-confidence, responding positively to stress, communication, creative thinking and negotiation.
Mindfulness encourages us to pay attention to the moment. It is centred upon the idea that there are Four Foundations of Mindfulness that we can be aware of. These are
- Our sensations: what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell
- Our thoughts
- Our feelings
- The one thing that we are engaged with
If we can be aware of these foundations, pay attention to our experience, then we can be wholly immersed in the moment and our lives.
I use mindfulness practices developed from the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) to develop and share photography activities. These practices all relate back to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and each is designed to encourage an attention to our daily experience.
In a work environment this paying attention leads to many benefits for the individual, which also spill over into the rest of their lives. The benefits to the individual staff member then accrue for the organisation, as staff become more centred, less stressed and more supportive of one another. Using photography as the vehicle for mindfulness allows something familiar to be used as our way in to the practice and we also learn how to create more interesting personal photographs.
Mindful Photography Course
The course is best delivered over 8 weeks of 3 hour sessions, though the total hours (24) can be split up in other ways to suit the needs of the business. An outline of the sessions follows and I would be delighted to meet and discuss how it could meet your businesses needs and to expand upon my philosophy and the course detail. Each week includes Photography activities and practices that develop a mindful attitude and specific personal skills relevant to a harmonious and effective work environment.
Week 1: Introduction to Mindfulness and Mindful Photography – Why Mindfulness? How can mindfulness support your life? Introductory Practices. Using photography to develop mindfulness. Photography practices and activities, including ‘Shooting from the Hip’
Week 2: Mindful Seeing – Using what we see as our anchor for mindfulness practice. Using the 4 Stage Seeing Practice. How we see vs how a camera sees. Photography practices and activities, including ‘Giving the mundane its beautiful due’
Week 3: Mindful Thinking – An exploration of how we can remain present with the one thing that we are doing when our mind is shooting about reliving the past and imagining our future. The application of this to photographic thinking. Photography practices and activities, including the ‘Camera Scan practice’
Week 4 Mindful Photomarathon A pair challenge designed to practice and apply the mindful photography skills learnt to date and develop teamwork, negotiation, creative thinking and responding to stress rather than reacting. Photography practices and activities, including ‘Photo Scan practice’
Week 5 Mindful Reflection A review of the Photomarathon experience. Mindful practices that support us in work. Photography practices and activities, including ‘A 50 foot space’
Week 6 Mindful Feeling – An exploration of our emotional world and how photography can be used to illustrate and understand this experience. Recognising our stress indicators. Developing positive responses to stress. Understanding our habitual reactions. Photography practices and activities, including ‘Equivalents’
Week 7 Mindful Emotions – Developing an understanding of our emotional world and how we can represent this through our photos: photography techniques vs an emotional response. Photography practices and activities, including ‘Right now’ and ‘It’s been emotional!’
Week 8 Mindful Being vs Doing – Understanding our personal fears. Mindfulness practices that can support our acceptance of those fears. Exploring fear through photography. Review of the course and a celebration of our favourite photos. Photography practices and activities, including ‘I love Selfies’
One popular adaptation is to take Week 4 Mindful Photomarathon out of the weekly schedule and turn it into a full day. This becomes then an even more immersive, team building exercise and can be used to explore the local town/city or a chosen environment.
The course will also produce many personal photographs from those taking part. All of the favourite photographs will be collated and shared with the business, providing an opportunity to use some of the photos to illustrate the skills and experiences of your staff.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this course or other similar ideas you have please contact me.