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As a guy who tries to live a mindful life I recognise that practice is the foundation, backbone and rhythm of my intention. Practice is a word that is often used alongside meditation, in that what we experience is most accurately described as a meditation practice. This is helpful. A practice implies that it is something we are working on, that perfection is not an expectation and that any experience is possible during the practice.

Practice also suggests a commitment to regularity and a growing understanding that the journey is more important than the destination. It is the practice itself that is the thing. The trying to get somewhere – like be a brilliant meditator is a flawed goal. Mindfulness is all about intention, not goal. It’s not supposed to feel like a carousel, round and round, up and down but not going anywhere. More like you are the Starship Enterprise and your ongoing mission is to explore strange new lands (your emotional landscape) and to boldly go where you haven’t gone before! Check out this post to read more about Intention.

Mindful Practices

Over the last few years I have developed a daily mediation practice, a weekly mindful photography practice and a daily gratitude practice with my sister in Canada. Also over the course of the last two years I have come to see this process of blogging as a practice. Let me explain.

Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat Zinn as, “Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” This is indeed a lifetime practice and one that we can return to any moment when we notice that we have become adrift on life’s turbulent swirling current.

We can apply mindfulness to any and every activity and action of life. Applying mindfulness to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation. This idea has been explored by many. There are books available on mindful walking, parenting, drawing, ageing, bereavement, baking, work, urban living, art and many more. Mindfulness is a media sensation.

I became aware that I was bringing this present moment attention to my writing in the late spring 2015 when I started sharing my life experiences and challenges through this blog. The practice of openly writing about one’s life experiences is nothing new of course. Diaries, autobiographies and memoirs have been a regular element of the book publishing industry for hundreds of years. The difference is personal.

Blogging about difficulty

For the first time in my life I started writing about my vulnerabilities and feelings. This was an instinctive reaction to life throwing unexpected curve balls at me. Instead of avoiding those feelings, or internalising, I chose to share. The reaction surprised me. I had contact and support from people I knew and those I had never met. But most interesting were the repercussions throughout my life.

These ripples, caused by the stone of honesty dropping into my pool of life, continue to be felt. It seems that the more I write about it, the more I am attuned to what is happening. The writing helps to process the difficulty, the feelings and the changes. The more attuned I am, the more able I am to be with whatever comes my way.

This also becomes a kind of deepening awareness. As I write I become present with my feelings about the difficult circumstances. I write freely and fast. Often the essence of the feelings is raw and unprocessed. Much of it comes instinctively and usually it is only edited to correct typos, grammar and spelling. The raw essence remains.

Writing these blog posts will continue to be a practice; one of reflection and authenticity. It feels like an essential aspect of my mindful life, so expect more soon!

 

I was tempted to leave this paragraph blank! For whilst it seems that wisdom may be acquired as one lives through life experiences, I often feel that the longer I live the less I know. Perhaps I am confusing knowledge with certainty. Maybe it is not that I know less, more that the certainty of youth is replaced by a wider understanding that life is complicated and there are many possibilities and alternatives.

Richard Osman, the quiz master on Pointless (my favourite TV quiz it has to be said) when talking about this issue, said “In life, you’re like a rocket. For the first 35 or 40 years you’re being fired up into the air, and whatever your fuel was – ambition, money – you’re burning it up to get the rocket higher. But then at some point you fall to earth again.”

This I can relate to. I am very much on earth, at base camp and truly exploring that ground. And here, amongst the foothills is a thought that is slowly coalescing into a truth. There is but one guiding principle that determines what it is all about. It’s all about love or fear.

Love and Fear

Love and fear are the two main emotions that we are capable of experiencing. Every other emotion is a sub set of either one of the two. Not only are they polar opposites they are each also linked to one key hormone that regulates our body. Fear produces cortisol and is part of the fight/flight response. It is the hormone that helps our body facilitate a rapid response to danger. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and culture have created circumstances where it is a response to stress, rather than danger that is the primary reason for the hormone’s production.

Love, on the other hand produces oxytocin, which is our body’s natural antidote to stress and the effects of cortisol. If this area is of interest to you take a look at this article which identifies clearly the effects of lifestyle and hormone and ultimately love and fear.

Back in the foothills of understanding; it’s all well and good understanding something, it’s in the living of it where the challenge lies. This is where mindfulness can help. By practicing mindfulness we can become closer to our emotional experience. Living in the present moment, noticing what is happening in our mind and body provides us with the opportunity to identify whether it is from love or fear that we are living.

The Present Moment

Writing this has achieved two things. Firstly, it has brought me into this present moment. I have realised that fear is always part of my experience and runs right through all aspects of my life. Secondly, this realisation has reminded me of the new understanding I am developing of fear; how it shapes our behaviour and how I can change this.

New learning takes a while to assimilate and behaviours take practice and time to change. I have re-visited my earlier post on Fear and will be listening to Tara Brach’s talks again about moving beyond the fear body. If you have not listened to them yet and if any aspect of what I have written resonates with you then I recommend them to you. If time is tight then just listen to the second talk as it summarises the first talk and recommends two approaches to dealing with the fear. The second of these explains how love is the antidote and how we can compassionately support our experience to change our fearful reaction.

Photography and love

In my Online Mindful Photography Course I explore more of this territory. I find it particularly interesting to explore and develop love through photography. ‘How can you do that?’ you ask. Here are four ideas that you can use as a basis for a Mindful Photography Practice on Love.

  1. Allocate a significant period of time (several weeks would be great!) where you only create photos of a loved one. This is inspired by Eric Kim’s Cindy Project – do take a look at the link as Eric explains why you should do this project. Obviously, they will need to be comfortable with the idea, but perhaps if you explain that you are exploring your love for them, they will be comfortable and even excited!
  2. Visit a location or place that you love, in the weather that most inspires you, and create a set of 10 photos that best represent what you love about the place.
  3. Choose a photographer who’s work you love. Study their work. Consider their style, their subject matter, their POV, their lens choice. Produce a set of 10 photos as an homage to their work.
  4. Create a small set of photos (or just one if it’s too challenging) that illustrates what you love about yourself.

Do let me know if you try any of these and I always welcome examples of your work to share here. The photos that I have used to illustrate this post are from a set of photos I call ‘Promenaders’ and were created after being inspired to try a de-focused 50mm lens on a wide aperture. I just love the abstract cartoon like effect created.

 

 

 

The following post is a personal summary of the wisdom, inspiration and guidance provided by Tara Brach (meditation teacher, psychologist and author) in her two talks called ‘Beyond the Fear Body’. Links to both talks are provided below and I encourage you to spare 50 minutes per talk to fully appreciate the depth of understanding Tara Brach has regarding the role fear plays in our lives. Direct quotes from the talks are identified and the rest is primarily a summary of her guidance.

Beyond the Fear Body 1                 Beyond the Fear Body 2

Why concern ourselves with fear?

If we look at the difficult aspects of our lives, in the shadows we will find fear. Underneath the emotions we will often find fear. We can sense it. Sometimes it is sharp, sometimes a background hum, sometimes a restlessness. There is no way to come home to our wholeness, to love ourselves fully in this world without befriending the background agitation, the fear.

Fear is a dominant driver in our life. Fear + resistance (to the fear) = suffering

But how do we change our relationship with fear? How do we move from acting out in familiar ways and habitual behaviours, to wisdom and compassion. Instead of running from our fears how can we learn to turn towards, to lean in, to what we are running from? How can we find our way to presence and embrace the life that is right here?

What is fear?

Fear is our anticipation of loss. Loss of our health, job, esteem, person, control of our life, life itself. Fear is an evolutionary habit, it is nature’s protector. The oldest parts of our mind (the limbic system) provide the fight/flight response that is designed to enable us to function at our physical and mental peak, in order to save our threatened lives.

Fear turns to suffering when it oversteps. When there is a repeated perceived threat and it is not processed. Fear then locks in and the sympathetic nervous system locks in. Our bodies’ response is named by Eckhart Tolle the ‘Fear Body’ and is made up of the physical response (flight/fight response, leading to a developing bodily tension, tightening in the body, causing blockages) and our thoughts (worry, planning, controlling, obsessing, imagining) which combined dictate our behaviour.

Our behaviours in this response are to not look for what is wrong, but to distract ourselves, to try to diminish the feeling of fear. We may look to distract ourselves from fear by eating, drinking, doing things, pouncing on others or withdrawing. This ‘Fear Body’ state could almost be called a trance. The limbic system has hijacked our access to another part of our mind, the frontal lobe. This is the part that provides our capacity to be present in the moment, to notice what is happening and be mindful.

How does fear make us feel and behave?

Fear catches us in something smaller than we are. Sometimes called ‘the big squeeze’, fear squeezes out our capacity to be present and loving as part of something bigger. Instead we are locked into the smaller part of ourselves, our egoic self. Everything is centered around that limited self perception, we lose living moments and are hooked into a re-activity.

Fear drives our addictions. It brings us into conflict with ourselves and others. We become more controlling and more manipulative, as we try to bend the world to our will. Deep into this process we become less intelligent, act stupidly, our creativity is limited, we loose spontaneity and our hearts close.

In our wider society the affect of unprocessed fear on a collective level is the cause of war. When we are afraid we get violent, self protective. We try to gain control and assign blame. We manipulate this by explaining how something is wrong with the ‘other’ (the other being because of difference: race, religion, city, club etc). We don’t find it so hard to be violent to the ‘other’, they don’t feel real or connected to us. We are not connected to their suffering.

Our intention has to be to evolve from this re-activity. To move beyond the fear body to ‘attend and befriend’ the fear.

How do we evolve from re-activity?

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected pathways: Direct Presence and Train the Mind

1) Direct Presence

Direct presence is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into the fear body. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take you?

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

2) Train the Mind

Our intention is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear”. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the Fear Body ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart, breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

Fear is the path. Fear is the practice. Fear is a portal

Read how Tara Brach met her edge and softened here

The Photos

The photos accompanying this post were created in response to a personal fear. The location, lighting, composition and black and white conversion were partly planned and partly instinctive once on location.

 

With mindfulness, as we practice – be it meditation, mindful photography or simply being present with the one thing that we are doing – our present awareness develops. As our present awareness deepens, our understanding and appreciation of the moment has room to expand. In this moment thoughts may arise and we notice how busy our mind is. We practice by returning to our anchor. In meditation this is often the breath. In mindful photography it is the seeing.

It is helpful to remind ourselves why we do this. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the roots of mindfulness. This paragraph from Lama Surya Das (an American born Tibetan Buddhist Lama) from his book ‘Awakening the Buddha within reminds us what mindfulness is.

“In the original Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha described what he called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These teachings remind us to be aware of our bodies; aware of our feelings and emotions; aware of our thoughts; and aware of events as they occur, moment by moment.”

The Unruly Mind

Mindful practices – breathing meditation, mindful movement (yoga, qigong, walking), body scan and mindful photography all allow us to be more present in our lives and to connect with our bodies, feelings, thoughts and events. The most challenging discovery is that it is our minds that are unruly. Running about indiscriminately through our past events, memories and future plans. Concocting imaginary conversations and worrying about things that may never happen.

I like this quote that lightens up the challenge ahead!

“Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our very worst enemy. They give us so much trouble. Sometimes I wish the mind were a set of dentures which we could leave on our bedside table overnight.” Sogyal Rinpoche

May your practice calm the unruly child that is your mind.

The Photo

As a practicing mindful photographer I know that bringing this awareness to photography allows the possibility that personal intuitive art that resonates with our heart and mind can be created. The photo above was created whilst practicing mindful photography and reminds me of the unruly mind; the confusion of imagery, the depth of vision and the possibility of life.

It’s got to be great!

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Begin with kindness

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Loosening our attachment to the outcome

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Sharing the merit

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

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

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

This is mindfulness in action.

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

 

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

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

Expanding your perspective

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

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

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

Understanding who you are

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

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

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.”

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

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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.

Mindful conversations

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.’

Mindful thinking

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.

Other resources

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.

Mindful Photography

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!

 

How it was

It is interesting when several aspects of your life converge upon a single theme. I had decided to investigate fear, its role in our lives and how we can live positively from it, because I knew that it would play a large role in this week. Coincidentally other happenings have followed the theme that were not expected, including this week’s MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course.

This post is going to review what we covered on Monday night in week 5 of the MBSR 18 months ago. Later in the post I will reflect on what I have learnt about meditation and fear since then. I will also be considering the two Tara Brach talks I shared previously and how they relate to this week’s MBSR course.

Responding instead of reacting

The core theme of this week’s course was how we can cultivate a response to stress, rather than a reaction. When we find an external event challenging or difficult our body responds to this stressor instinctively. Our reactions are led by our mind and in particular the oldest parts of our brain, the parts that control the flight or fight response. These systems are hardwired to produce reactions in our body that enable us to function at our highest level, so that we survive the threatening event.

These reactions are guided by the sympathetic nervous system which gets the body ready for flight or fight. This system, which is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), accelerates our heart rate, widens bronchial passages (for more oxygen), dilates our pupils, raises our blood pressure, shoots us full of adrenaline and increases perspiration. So we are ready for action! This is all fine and dandy if we need to take immediate action to save ourselves, such as leaping out of the way of a car that is careering towards us, but if the event that causes us stress is an ongoing one then it may not be appropriate or necessary.

Continual hyper-arousal like this can cause the system to become disregulated and lead to other physical problems such as arrhythmias, sleep disorders, chronic headaches, backaches and anxiety. We may then engage coping strategies, such as overworking, overeating and substance misuse (alcohol, caffeine, drugs etc). These in turn can lead to physical and psychological exhaustion, loss of drive, depression, genetic predispositions, heart attack and cancer.

What if we could start to change our body’s reaction? If we could learn to respond differently we could break out from this destructive cycle. This is where mindfulness can help.

How mindfulness can help

The guidance from the course is straight forward to understand. It is in its application where the practice is to be found. The advice is:

“Experience the stressor just as it is in the present moment. In other words we accept it and let it be.”

The first step, when experiencing a stressor is to 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? These physical symptoms are all indicators that the sympathetic nervous system has kicked in. 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.

The second step builds upon this noticing. As we pay attention to our body and mind’s reactions we allow it to happen, but we don’t try to make things different. We breathe, in and out. Maybe we breathe in and out where we can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. We experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as we live through this, we settle back into the present. We begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.

I know that is is not easy. I had the opportunity to practice yesterday. One tactic I employed was to not only feel it in my body, but to feel my body in the world. To feel my feet on the ground and my bum on the chair. This rooting down helped to ground me in the moment.

How it is now

Tara Brach’s talks describe these physical responses that the body is hardwired to produce when experiencing fear, as the Fear Body. I believe that it is a term first used by Eckhart Tolle.

I know that since I have learnt and understood how our body reacts to stress that I am sometimes able to notice how I am reacting in the middle of the experience. Of course sometimes I am so immersed in the experience that I am unable to notice. This is the practice! 

This reminds me that the main purpose of meditation is to train the mind, to train it so that we can pay attention, so that we can catch ourselves reacting and pause. In that pause we can reconnect with our physical experience,  we can come out of the stories or thoughts our mind is playing and root ourselves in the physical. Then in that moment we can choose how to respond.

Meditation provides many experiences and develops our ability to live mindfully through stressful events with skill, love and authenticity.

Week 4 of the MBSR begins a deepening of the discussion around stress. 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

The full title of this week’s MBSR class was ‘Reactivity to stress and pain’. We covered a wide range of concepts, discussion points and practices, but by far the biggest discussion was around what stress was. As dealing with stress and chronic pain were the original reasons for the development of the MBSR by Jon Kabat-Zinn and there were quite different understandings what stress is in our group, I’m going to focus my thoughts upon what stress is.

Stress

Let’s start with some clarity. No one can agree what stress is. I know, there are plenty of definitions, but even the guy who first coined the term, Hans Selye (1936) later said to reporters, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” There is some common ground, repeated in most medical dictionaries and websites, which define stress as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses.”

A general perception is that stress is a negative reaction. That stress is a ‘bad’ thing. This was borne out by our group discussion where one or two people could only understand stress as a difficulty or problem that they did not function well under. The fact that our body’s flight or fight response generates a cocktail of chemicals into the bloodstream in order for high functioning reactions, to perform at our highest capability and possibly to avoid death or major problems, is part of a ‘stress reaction’ is not always understood.

The scientist Hans Selye coined the term ‘stressor’ to distinguish stimulus from response. Hence a stressor could be a car accident or public performance and the stress caused would be the body’s reaction to this stressor. Then we also have to take account of our individual reactions. One person’s stressor is another person’s reason for being. For example some of us hate the idea of a public performance, others revel in the limelight.

Stress Reactions

Throughout our lives we have developed automatic reactions to potential stressors. These are habits that we have little awareness of and include: indifference, attachment and aversion. In each case the common theme is that we are not in the present moment, we are choosing to ignore, imagine other experiences or avoid the unfolding experience. The outcome of these habits is that we may not be aware that we are being affected by a stressful situation.

The MBSR is most concerned with awareness. If we are aware that our body is reacting to a stressor we are able to change that reaction. So how do we become aware? We have to tune in to how our body reacts to a stressful situation. Here are some of the physical and emotional symptoms our bodies may experience (from Boots WebMD)

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quietening your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless and depressed
  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear
  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Excess sweating
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

How can we be aware of stress?

We heighten our awareness of the moment by practicing mindfulness: meditation (breathing, body scan), mindful movement (yoga, walking, qigong), mindful activities (washing the dishes, eating, photography…). Each of these practices deepens our presence within the moment. In that space we can be more aware of how our body is, what our mind is thinking. Then with attention we can breath and be with our experience. Rather than turning from it, we turn towards it and in that space it begins to soften and lose its impetus.

My habits and practices

Now this is all fine and dandy in theory, but what of my reality. I now know that I have created my chronic health condition by ignoring my unfolding experience, not paying attention to my body’s reactions and acting out of a habitual response. My drive to succeed, to be the best I could be at my job and in long distance running led me to ignore the warning signs and allowed an acute breathing condition to become chronic.

Those habits are still with me. The difference now is that by continuing to deepen my mindfulness practice (meditation, yoga, body scan and mindful photography) I am now becoming more attuned to how my body is and I am then able to make choices that support my health.

It is an ongoing practice. The habits are decades old! However, mindfulness provides me with the tools to forge new neural pathways, new habits and new ways of being.

How it is now

The MBSR has been developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s understanding of how our body and mind react when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Mindfulness is offered as a practice that can heighten our awareness to how we are, right now, in this very moment.

It is worth remembering that mindfulness is described as a practice. As with any practice sometimes it goes well and and other times it does not. When we do not notice (or choose to ignore) that we are experiencing a stressful experience we then return to our habitual reactions. The body’s cocktail of chemicals to support us is released and we behave as we do usually in these scenarios.

This reaction will be personal to you, but I am certain that you know what I am talking about. My pattern of behaviour when I am not attuned to the bodies reactions, and events are getting too much for me is to carry on, take on even more tasks and continue to not notice that my body is starting to struggle. Finally this will manifest in an acute situation with my chronic breathing condition. I then notice and stop.

Whilst I am getting better at noticing this I still think that I am invulnerable and have more capacity than I actually do. It is of course difficult to admit to your own vulnerabilities – health, behaviours or habits – but this is the area where the work and practice is required. Understanding how we behave and the situation that leads to that behaviour is the first step in recognising the vulnerability. Admitting that this is something that we often do is the first step in beginning to change the pattern.

Mindfulness and meditation train our mind to pay attention. They provide us with the space to begin to notice how we are. I understand this completely now. It does though remain a practice, one that I am committed to and one that I am making progress. It is going to take a lifetime though!

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.

Mindful Movement

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.

 

 

 

There is a still point between the in breath and the out breath. And another between the out breath and the in breath. Each is milliseconds in length. Each is a time when the world is in balance. You may not be aware of their arrival and passing. But they are always there, always available.

The in breath requires us to do something; our body has learnt to drawn in breath, to extend effort and air is drawn into our lungs. The out breath is a release, we let go and air passes back out through our respiratory system. In between the effort and the release, the release and the effort are the still points.

I am writing a book on Mindful Photography at the moment that is about paying attention to the still point. Staying with that moment when all is in balance. It is about developing a way of extending its influence throughout every breath, in and out. It is about paying attention to the effort that has brought us to this point and paying attention to what we can release. It is about paying attention to our life, our choices and the ripples of consequence that resonate through our being and beyond.

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Mindfulness is paying attention

This paying attention has become known as mindfulness and it is all the rage. But whilst it may provide the media with regular column inches, for me it is more than just a fad, it has become a way through tremendous personal difficulties and a practice that is now central to my life.

Mindfulness is intended to be a way of living through every aspect of our life. The suggestion is that we pay attention to what we are sensing, thinking, feeling, and doing. Through that practice we learn to respond in ways that support us, rather than instinctively reacting in ways that cause us stress.  Most mindfulness books provide philosophy and guidance that allow us to apply the practice to our life. They are often written by Buddhist sages or learned psychologists. I have no such claims. However, I have learnt through personal experience how mindfulness can support a greater understanding of myself; my choices, my habits, my behaviours and the full engagement in every aspect of my being.

I have lived through the study, the reading, the courses, the sitting, the dreaming. I have thought that I was applying the philosophies, the practices. I have imagined that I was mindful, that just because I meditated that I was ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It took ten years before I began to recognise that this mindfulness thing is an ongoing practice. I knew that’s what it was called; a practice. I understood the idea intellectually, but I was not living it. The possibility that you never really crack it, that there is nothing to achieve, that it is a lifetime’s practice was a slow coalescing realisation. One that occasionally seems obvious and at other times remains elusive.

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A Personal Approach

My book takes a personal approach. It draws upon my midlife experiences of choices and consequences, of striving, of not paying attention and of the health challenges that developed. It focuses upon a particular application of mindfulness and shares methods, practices and activities that I have found of immense help.

I do not claim to be a mindful master, but I have found an application for mindfulness and a way of continuing to develop a mindful approach that I believe is quite unique and may be helpful for others. I call it Mindful Photography.

We are all photographers now. Most of us carry a smartphone with the capacity to create and share fabulous photographs of our world. Many of us also have a digital camera. The potential for creating a visual record is now part of our everyday life. My book is for everyone who wants to create personal and resonant photographs: photos that say something of who we are, what we think and what life is like for us. However, it is not just about how to create profound, expressive photos; it also is about living life, making mistakes, facing unexpected events, understanding ourselves and responding, rather than reacting to life’s difficulties.

In the book I will reflect upon the habits and behaviours I developed in my thirties and the midlife choices I made later that impelled me down the path towards a chronic health condition. Sometimes I may shed a little light on the culture at the time, but this is not shared as an excuse for my choices. It is more an attempt to unravel the impact our modern life and behaviour has upon our well being. I contrast these life experiences with the ideas and attitudes that underpin a mindful life.

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Why Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about paying attention. My life choices clearly demonstrate that I was not paying attention. However, over ten years the message begins to percolate my consciousness and I start to incorporate mindful activities into my life.

Have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Don’t be daft. 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 being. Balancing photography practices that develop mindfulness with an exploration of how life’s choices are determined, I will share an intimate and truthful map of our midlife travels, arriving at a midlife manifesto that is my work in progress and could be yours.

Mindfulness has changed my life and developing this practice through photography has been and continues to be one way in which I have explored how I live now and how I can continue to live with authenticity, truth and love. Once you pick up a camera and start using it in the ways that I suggest your life may never quite be the same again.

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My top 10 reasons to embrace mindful photography are outlined below. These may stimulate more questions for you than they answer. Some of those will be answered at photography workshops later this year and next. Others will be explored in my forthcoming book. In the meantime I am happy to answer any questions you may have, just use the contact page.

1) Learn how to see like a camera – A camera does not know the name of anything in its viewfinder. It sees light. You can learn to see the light, but you most forget the name of things!

2) Use what you see as your anchor – In meditation the breath is often used as an anchor; the thing we return to when we notice sensations, thoughts or feelings playing out across our mind. In Mindful Photography we return to the seeing.

3) Develop your photography skills and knowledge whilst remaining connected to the visual feast before you -Find out how here

4) Express how you are feeling with a photograph – Photography can be used to explore and represent emotional experiences that are current or past. It can be literal, metaphorical or symbolic. Or it can just be a photo of something that resonates for you. Workshop coming in September.

5) Use photography as a vehicle for self enquiry – The more we practice mindfulness the more we discover about ourselves. Photography can be used to explore our world and can act as the intermediary between our inner world and the outer one.

6) Cultivate your ability to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings through mindful photography practices – Autumn workshop coming!

7) Develop patience in your world through understanding and accepting your development as photographer – The journey to mastery in any skill may take 10,000 hours (Malcom Gladwell in Outliers), but there are mindful photography practices we can follow that support this development. These allow the quality of patience to rise unbidden as we pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise as we learn our craft.

8) Develop your ability to see the world as if for the first time – A beginner’s mind is a mindful attitude. It is one that we can apply to the practice of creating photographs. If we choose to return regularly to the same location, to spend time slowly exploring the visual feast available we may begin to see beauty which once eluded us. We can practice “giving the mundane its beautiful due” John Updike. This ability cultivated through photography can support us to look at our daily experience with fresh eyes.

9) Develop trust in your own feelings – If you are to create photographs that are personal, unique and authoritative then you must listen to your heart, as well as your head: to learn to trust and follow your own intuitive guide. If you cultivate this skill it will begin to seep through to the rest of your world

10) Bring mindfulness into another aspect of your life – Mindfulness does not have to be limited to the meditation cushion, that is merely the training zone! As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.” By applying and developing mindfulness to photography we expand our potential to be fully present in our life.

 

 

 

What do you imagine would happen if the UK Government got interested in the application of Mindfulness? You no longer have to wonder. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness has just published its findings and presented them at the Palace of Westminster.

This is an historic moment. Not yet widely reported, I picked up on it after a friend sent me this link to a report in the Huffington Post. After reading the article I thought I had better do a little background research, not that I doubt the press, but the Huffington Post can be a little left field!

Mindful Nation UK is a report 2 years in the making that has just been published by the Mindfulness All Part Parliamentary Group (MAPPG). It has been supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, who appear to have involved many of the great and the good in the UK and beyond, in their organisation and the process. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax are their patrons.

The executive summary of the report (first few pages) is worth a read and in a wide ranging set of recommendations they have considered the application of Mindfulness in the National Health Service, education, the workplace and the Prison Service.

This is a fascinating and heartening development. We wait to see how the realities of implementing the recommendations in a current culture of reducing public spending pan out. As an eternal optimist I can imagine that the advocates of the report will highlight not only the potential for positive outcomes, but how those outcomes may save the government money.

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Learning Mindfulness

It struck me that there may be some of you out there who may be curious about mindfulness and interested in learning more. So I thought I would share a few links to useful resources.

BeMindful.com offers an online course in developing mindfulness. This looks interesting and helpful. It costs £60 or $95 and can be done at any time, anywhere. I believe that you can start it for free, to see if it is for you, before committing to payment.

Other online courses are available. Perhaps one of the best known for meditation is Headspace, which also is available as an app and encourages you to meditate regularly at a time to suit you.

If you prefer face to face learning and are based in the UK then BeMindful.co.uk provide a search facility to find a Mindfulness teacher near you.

There are a wide range of links and resources available at the online magazine Mindful.org. The link here will take you to a collection for those just starting out

Alternatively if you are interested in the roots of Mindfulness then an understanding and enquiry into the Buddhist Dharma might be of interest. There are many online resources available. A simple internet search will reveal resources shared by individual teachers, teaching centres and many more. One of the largest resources is at Dhama Seed. A wide variety of teachers and talks are available for free, donations are encouraged.

Alternatively, you may prefer to visit a centre near you. There are many across the UK, USA and Canada. Again an internet search will reveal those in your country.

 

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.

 

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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!

 

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..”

 

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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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