Tag Archives: awareness

Yoga and mindfulness at Woodbrooke

One of the highlights of my summer is teaching at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.  This year the course is slightly earlier, running Wednesday, 15 August 2018 – Friday, 17 August 2018.  Our title this time is “Sense and Perception: Bringing Together Yoga, Mindfulness & Photography.”

The yoga sessions will be gentle and suitable for beginners, with an emphasis on mindful practice rather than physical ability. Mats and blankets will be provided, but you will need to bring a digital camera you are comfortable using – your phone camera will be perfect.

The course costs £170.00 non-residential or £245.00 residential and places can be booked online with Woodbrooke by following this link.

I hope to see you in August!

A workshop at Woodbrooke

Towards the end of August I taught on a 3 day workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.  Our topic this year was “Looking, seeing; Doing, being.”  The intention was to explore how the different ways in which we approach life and the world around us can have a significant impact on our experience.

After several weeks of mixed weather, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine.   This made our enjoyment of Woodbrooke’s beautiful gardens even more delightful.  We spent our time on a mixture of yoga, meditation and photography.  We explored the gardens, walked the labyrinth and enjoyed plentiful and scrumptious food.

We will be there again next August, with a similar course entitled ‘Sense and Perception’.  Details will be on my workshops page nearer the time, and places can be booked directly with Woodbrooke from April 2018.


Sudden attraction

I went this week to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, for a meeting to plan the workshop I will be co-delivering this August.  We had a very productive day, and as usual a lovely lunch in Woodbrooke’s canteen.  I always find myself drawn to bowls of fruit, not necessarily to eat, but because of the beauty of their contents.  There were several bowls there yesterday and one contained the prettiest blush pears.  I had to have one!

I love the subtle shades of warm yellow, slightly lime green and that pinky-red flush that is neither pink nor red, yet both at once.  The shape is also extremely pleasing, and somehow nature has deemed to make them the perfect shape and size to sit snugly in my hand.

We have a great couple of days planned for the course, only a few weeks away now.  We will be immersing ourselves in personal reflection and mindfulness, in the fantastic setting of Woodbrooke’s house and gardens.  There are still places available so if you would like to join us why not give Woodbrooke a ring or check out the details on their website?

Never a truer word spoken

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”  Rachel Carson

I still have my copy of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal work in which she warned the world of the impact of modern chemical and farming practices on the wider environment.  All those years ago, I was active in encouraging support for environmental issues and although I tend to do this more quietly now, it is reassuring to see that the fate of those with whom we share the planet seems to be higher on people’s agendas again.

In man’s pursuit of his own gains he has frequently ignored the bigger picture.  Many of the wonders that we look to photograph today may not be here in the immediate future.  As Rachel Carson so clearly points out, it is in our lack of appreciation that this destruction goes ahead.  I hope that the expanding interest in photography as a hobby might serve to make some consider the impact that their lifestyles are having and to begin to appreciate the smaller things in life more.  After all, these may be all we have.

Are you falling victim to the photo-taking impairment effect?

At the end of last year, the media picked up on a study at Fairfield University which seemed to indicate that by taking photographs as a record of things you see, you impair your ability to actually remember them.  The experiment was conducted during a museum tour, with some participants asked to take photos and others just to look.  They also noted that if participants paid more attention to the object, by zooming in and photographing smaller details, the impairment effect was overcome.

This seems to fit in pretty neatly with my own experience and expectations.  If we walk around snap, snap, snapping away, with paying attention, it is not surprising that we remember very little.  In fact, perhaps our memory takes the opportunity to switch off, as we know we can look at the pictures later.  This approach allows us to daydream, coast and really avoid being present to whatever is in front of us.  Why pay attention?  The camera will take notes for you!  When I see those people who seem to view their entire holiday through the lens of a camera, taking pictures or video, I have to wonder if their attention is on the subject or on the technicalities of recording it.

It is only when we truly engage with our subject that we see it clearly.  For me this invariably means up-close and personal, but it doesn’t have to.  I love to explore the little details of texture and light, shadows and form.  I like to slow right down, to spend time exploring my subject visually before I get my camera out of the bag.  Sometimes I decide against using the camera at all; despite the advances of modern technology in those little boxes of tricks, they can’t always record the sheer magnificence of the scene perceived by the human eye.  This is why I rarely take pictures of sunsets, preferring to sit and watch the subtly changing light than to dwell on camera settings and framing.  In fact some of my most memorable images are the ones that ‘got away’.  Despite my generally poor memory these days, those images are firmly settled in my mind to be treasured for the future.  No camera required!

Photographic clichés and the mindful photographer

Photography offers a creative outlet in a world which can seem increasingly humdrum if we let it.  But is there a risk that rather than sparking up our latent creativity, we simply record the mundane and move on?

It’s sometimes said that everything has been done before.  And most of this has likely been copied, intentionally or otherwise.  Of course, anything new and unusual is likely to inspire others to give it a try.  Indeed, experimenting with reproducing an effect can be a good way to learn a new technique.

Sadly, given the speed of modern communications and media sharing, it doesn’t take long for the creatively different to become the latest in a line of clichés.  The once-novel effect is seen everywhere and in its overuse becomes irritating and tedious.  “Oh, not another sunset!” we groan, flipping quickly to the next page. Back in 1979, Susan Sonntag commented that “certain glories of nature…have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.” How many more such pictures must have been taken in the intervening years?

Many of the photographic clichés cited are based around post-processing techniques such as colour-popping or HDR.  The use of black and white to rescue an otherwise tiresome image seems to come in for regular scathing derogation.  Images of pets and flowers seem to be equally slated (no hope for me then!) as does the production of record shots of landmarks and the use of ‘Dutch angles’ to fit everything in the frame.

But what does all this mean to the mindful photographer?  It seems to me that many images which compel us to exclaim ‘Seen it!’, post-processing clichés aside, may have been created without a great deal of attentiveness.  They fall into the category of ‘spot it and snap it’ pictures, snagged with minimum mental input in the easiest way possible.  Don’t get me wrong, these record shots are great if what you want, or need, is to represent the subject objectively and accurately.

And when we begin to work with a subject, this may be what we produce at first.  It is almost as if we need to work through these initial placing images to set the context, before we can look more closely.  But have patience and stay a while longer, after you think you are done.   This is when we may truly focus our mind on the subject at hand, begin to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  I call it ‘being in the zone’.  It is here that we find the essence of our subject’s nature, the special energy it has for us.  We explore those aspects which are not revealed to the cursory glance and our creativity is awakened.  This is when we make our best photographs, the ones really worth keeping.

Powerful feelings, collected in tranquillity

In his introduction to ‘Lyrical Ballads’ William Wordsworth famously commented that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”  On seeing his words again this week, I was struck by their relevance to mindful photography.  Artists who work with words must surely need to find the mental space for those words to coalesce into meaningful phrases, sentences, characters and plots.  The tranquillity Wordsworth refers to allows the writer’s thoughts to take shape and become expression on the page.

As a photographer, we need that same mental space to explore our subject, to connect with its essence.  We need to be fully present in each moment we are out with our camera in order to recognise those special moments when we see them.  Daydreaming, we would walk by the wonders and miss the details.

From that quiet inner space we are receptive to receiving.  Maybe watching the world as we go for a slow and observant walk, perhaps sitting a while and watching the world as it goes by.  We open ourselves up to experience the true beauty around us and genuinely see what is there.  We may be led to wonder about what we are seeing, to consider cause and effect, ways and means, beginnings and ends.  Whatever our vision prompts within us, it is in that experience that the emotion is ‘collected’ in tranquillity.  The poetry is in the picture.  The difference is in the timescale.

Flirting with unbeautiful things

I had a minor epiphany this week reading the May issue of Black and White Photography.  In an article about the photographer Gordon Stettinius he is quoted as saying that the majority of his work “flirts with unbeautiful things…not ugly subjects, but the strange, forgotten and the whatnot around the margins.  I like moments when the ordinary has momentarily lost its ordinariness.” Yay!  I couldn’t have put it better myself!

I had been beginning to wonder if my interests were a little, um, well, weird!  Whilst so many people like to photograph beautiful things; sunsets, colourful flowers, stunning cityscapes, I am usually concentrating my attention on a patch of strangely twisted grass or cracks in the paving.  The curious shapes of a contorted leaf or one small fragment of a dying flower.  The juxtaposition of old and new or gentle, slow decay.

I feel a certain reassurance to know that there are others out there who also focus the lens of their camera on the obscure and unbeautiful.  I have frequently been on the receiving end of strange looks as I devote my attention to the apparently uninteresting.  But, it seems, I am not alone.  Not for me the overtly adorable, the perfectly photogenic or the luscious landscape.  It’s as if sometimes the beauty is so great the image cannot do it justice. That’s when I find myself ignoring the view and photographing patterns in the rocks.  Or seeking to find the beauty in the unbeautiful.  I can manage that.

Hiding in plain sight

How many times have you gone looking for something to find it sitting where you least expected it to be, on your third trip around the house when you were just starting to think you were really losing the plot and it just has to be here somewhere!   The same can happen when we are out with a camera; unsightly objects creep into the edges of our frame or we totally fail to notice the awkward shadow that spoils the composition.  This seems to happen most when we are looking at familiar things or in a familiar place.  We see what we expect to see and fail to see the extraordinary that can reside in the most ordinary of things.

In seeing our expectations rather than reality we are already labelling and judging what is in front of us. We might consider it boring or just think ‘Seen it, done it, got the t-shirt.’  This tendency to ‘tick things off’ and move on to pastures new discourages us from taking a closer look at what is there today…which could be quite different to last time. Freeman Patterson suggests that “Letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing.”  By letting go you abandon your preconceptions about the subject matter that act as a barrier to seeing, viewing it as if for the first time again, or through a child’s eyes.

“Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”  Ajahn Chah

Letting go helps you to get past what you expect to see and recognise what is really there.  Frederick Franck considered that the “me cramp” of being focussed primarily on ourselves interferes with our ability to experience that which is outside of us.  Yoga traditions warn of the dangers of identification with the ego, the emphasis on ‘I’ rather than recognising that we are part of something much greater.  Just as this self-concern limits our experience of life, so it limits our engagement with the subject of our photographs.  The answer?  According to the great sage Patanjali, meditation is a way of seeing what is real and letting go of that which is not.  Treat photography as a meditation and learn to really see, in more ways than one.