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

Mindfulness perspective

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

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

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

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

 

Trust as applied to Mindful Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear Arising

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness in action

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

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

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

Step 1 – Pay attention

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

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

Step 2 Breathe into the body’s sensations

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

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

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

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

“Yes” I answered in trepidation.

“We can fix this” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 1

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 2

A mindful photography practice

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

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

A little voice

Each of us seems to have a little voice in our head that runs a commentary on our life. Quite often this little voice assumes a critical perspective, sending thoughts that judge the current experience across our consciousness. These thoughts may often be judgments about ourselves (“I can’t do this”, I’ll never be able to sit still”, “I find this boring”) or about others (He’s selfish, “She always interrupts”).

When we are sat practicing meditation the frequency and loudness of the voice can become more apparent. Some describe this as a judging quality of mind. Not so much a quality though, more a habit. Built up over many years of trying to shape the world to our will, we all expect each day to develop in a certain way. We have our routines and commitments that we expect to unfold in the usual manner. When they don’t, because life isn’t like that, we are unsettled and pass judgement. The most common one being, “I don’t like this.”

As we meditate we have the opportunity to notice this habit, note it as ‘judging’ or ‘thinking’ and return to the breath. This instruction sounds simple, and it is in theory, but its consistent application is a challenge because these judging thoughts can be quite sticky. We can quickly get wrapped up in a judgement, that then leads to a thought stream about how we would like the situation to be different. Noticing this and returning to the breath is our practice.

The encouragement is to be an impartial witness to our thoughts. Watching what our mind does, with apparently little or no direction! We are only required to notice the thought and not act upon it it. Instead we return to the breath.

As applied to photography

In mindful photography our ‘Seeing’ is our anchor rather than the breath. As we practice, walking with our camera and following the 4 stage seeing practice, each time we notice a thought or judgement, we return to the seeing in much the same way as we return to the breath when following a sitting practice. This embraces exactly the same challenge as traditional meditation or any other mindfulness practice. We notice the judging thought, and return to our practice.

Of course in photography there are some quite common judgments that you might experience as you are learning. These could include: “I can never remember what ………does”, “I don’t know what I am doing”, ” My photos are not good enough”, “I’m no good at this”.

All of these critical thoughts are common when we are learning and practicing a new skill. We do like to beat ourselves up along the path to competence and later, expert. Of course the most common judgement in photography is that the photograph is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Now this is a fundamental barrier that it is helpful to recognise in ourselves and in photography. Whilst there are guidelines for effective photographic composition and it is true that we benefit from learning them, they are only guidelines.

If we are ever to create photographs that share something of how we find the world, we have to be able to let these guidelines rest lightly on our consciousness, to almost let them go their own way (more on this when we get to the 7th attitude ‘Letting go’). In the meantime here is a quote I love that goes some way to holding judgement lightly in photography.

“I don’t know what good composition is…. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness.” – Diane Arbus

For a fabulous resource sharing some of Diane Arbus’s most intriguing work visit Artsy’s Arbus page

I am often asked what mindfulness is. Yesterday the guy cutting my hair asked. I explained, as he buzzed and snipped, that he should imagine that he was only doing one thing at a time. Only cutting my hair. Not thinking about later, or last night. Not listening to the heavy beat from his music choice. I think the irony passed him by.

But it is difficult. We have ingrained patterns. Modern culture has encouraged and taught us to do many things at once. Multi tasking is a skill. And of course there are times when it is very useful. But we have all experienced that moment when we try to recall how we ended up doing what we did (driving from a to b) and it’s a bit of a blur. Being instead of doing is difficult.

Even explaining the difference is a little tricky. Being is just being in the present moment, but that almost inevitably means that you are doing something. Even if that something is mindfully doing the dishes. The trick is that you are only doing that one thing, giving it your whole attention.

In the zone

In sport, just giving that one thing your complete attention, body and mind in sync, is described as being in the zone. I would suggest that it is mindfulness. Every sense, sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, is attuned to that moment. This sensory information is not held tightly. It flows through you, part of you and part of your place in the world. It is noticed and supports your awareness of the moment.

This does not just apply to sport. Mindfulness can be applied to any activity. Yesterday, I practiced putting out the washing on the line, mindfully. I felt the chilly air on our still shadowed deck. The damp sheets were cold to the touch. The colours of the sheets and blue sky beyond caught my eye. I could smell cut grass and then my thoughts would intrude. “Take a photo of it”, they would say. And I would bend down, noting the thought and slowly pickup the next item to be hung out. Each time using some sensory information to return to the moment.

The photo

When I finished I extended my practice to taking a photo mindfully; well I can’t be teaching mindful photography without continuing to practice! I put my own 4 stage seeing practice into action, alongside a basic camera scan technique and attuned myself to the visual moment. There were technical choices to be made and this all becomes more seamless and part of the moment the more I follow the mindful photography practices.

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

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

Men being men

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

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

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

Sapiens and Sex

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

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

Photography as a tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

Why is change like the weather?

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

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Change, mindfulness and photography

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

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

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

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

Something had to change.

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

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

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

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

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