Over the last few years I have slowly come to the realisation that it is life that is the practice. Every aspect, every element, every event, every difficulty provides opportunity to be with how it is and respond skillfully. That is for me, the heart of mindfulness. It is not just a practice, but a way of life. The practice is life. Life is the practice.
It is helpful to reflect on a current definition of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgement. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.” Sharon Saltzburg
Sharon Saltzburg perfectly distils it down in that final sentence. ‘Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.’ The ability to do this, to be this way, is born from daily meditation practice and a commitment to pay attention to each moment of the day. It is the paying attention that is difficult to maintain. Meditation is the training ground. We sit and we pay attention to our mind leaping about. We use an anchor (breath, sound, sight) to come back to ourselves in the moment.
Modern scientific understanding of the brain’s functioning helps us to understand how meditation creates neural pathways which we can then use throughout our day to support our intention to pay attention. If you’re interested in this concept take a look at this simple explanation of neural plasticity
My own experience of meditation and mindfulness echoes this. I have had a daily practice for several years. Only in the last couple of years have I started to notice it infiltrating the rest of my life, as I have slowly developed the ability to pay attention more often in the rest of my life. Of course, I regularly fail. I fall back into old behaviours, habits and ways of thinking. I know why; those neural pathways have been around longer. I often liken them to motorways. I’m used to using them and they get me places quickly. Or so I imagine.
The intention to practice paying attention throughout my life has a simple goal. Sharon Salzburg called it creating space for insight. Another Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, talks about us developing the ability to respond skillfully, rather than reacting habitually. I intend to continue to develop my ability to be with each moment, fully accepting how it is and responding skillfully. That is the life practice!
So if that is the intention how can a Mindful Photography Practice help?
Mindful Photography Practice
I meditate daily, walk mindfully occasionally and intend to follow a mindful photography practice once a week. Any activity can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to practice and develop the habit of paying attention. As Mr Kabat-Zinn says, “Applying mindfulness to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.”
I generally keep my practice simple and I’ll explain what I do and how below.
Camera and lens choice
Firstly, I always use the same camera and lens set up. I favour a prime lens that echoes how we normally see. A 50mm focal length or equivalent is the way to go. My current camera, the Fuji XT2, has a crop factor of 1.5. so a 35mm lens is equivalent to 52.5mm on a full frame sensor. (Confused? get a simple explanation here….and then check out your camera a lens combination here. Warning: you’ll need to know your sensor size.)
If you use a zoom lens that’s fine. You can carry on using it as is, or you could tape it up at the 50mm equivalent and just use one focal length. Why do this you ask? If you use just one lens regularly and it is similar to how you see, it will support your ability to create photographs that are similar to what you see. Wide angle and telephoto lenses distort the photo. For me the essence of the mindful photography practice is to represent what I see and how I see it.
Camera set up
My regular set up is Aperture Priority with a mid range aperture as my walk about position and ISO appropriate for the light. The basic intention is to choose a simple set up from which I can create photo that represents what I see, that is exposed correctly and with a good depth of field. If I want to make creative choices about depth of field, focus, white balance etc I can do so mindfully from this position. After creating the photo I then return to the original camera set up.
Four Stage Seeing Practice
My own Four Stage Seeing Practice is the anchor for a mindful photography practice. This involves coming back to what I see every time I notice my mind has gone elsewhere, much in the same way as you return to the breath when meditating. The four stages are Anchor, Seeing, Resting and Creating. I explain them fully in my book – Mindful Photography: How to use photography to develop mindfulness
I generally practice for an hour, choosing to walk around a location and just notice what I see. The heart of the practice is to not look for a photo opportunity. That may sound contrary. After all I do expect to create some photos. My suggestion to you is, don’t look for a photo, just observe what you see. The photo will come to you.
If you practice this regularly one day this simple instruction will become part of how you photograph and you will have established a mindful photography practice as part of your intention to live a mindful life. Until then keep practicing!