Tag Archives: mindfulness

Looking and seeing

A meditative approach to photography helps us to make the shift from looking to seeing.  It helps us to cultivate the habit of seeing more clearly, becoming more awake to each moment. I love this quote by Frederick Franck, which seems to sum this up perfectly:

“We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes…Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.”

The same can be said of photography, if we allow it to happen.  We can ‘do’ photography, dashing round snapping this and that without much thought or presence, or we can ‘be’ photography, and let the images come to us.

So what do we mean by ‘seeing’? Freeman Patterson has the answer this time:

“Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions.  It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being.  It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

Sometimes it can be hard to really see.  Perhaps we are busy with other things, other thoughts.  This preoccupation means that life rushes by in a blur and we cannot see beyond the essential.  Maybe there is just too much to take in, to make visual sense of it, so we block much of it out.  Perhaps it’s all just so amazing we become immune to its charms and no longer notice it.

Strong reactions, whether like or dislike, can prevent us from seeing clearly, as the emotional response clouds our ability to respond objectively.  Sometimes it is the mundane things that allow us to explore their potential more fully.

To me, the biggest barrier to seeing clearly can be the deep set habit to label things and immediately assign them a value, good bad or indifferent.  We relegate them to the appropriate pile without even bothering to give a second glance.  Monet spoke wisely when he said “In order to see, we must forget the name of the thing we’re looking at.”

Why not take time to look more closely at something mundane this week?  It might surprise you.

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!

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?


At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless.
Neither from nor towards,
at the still point,
there the dance is.
Where the past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point.

from T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton


Are you photographing to do or doing to photograph?

In her classic text ‘On Photography’, Susan Sonntag suggests that “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Sonntag’s book was published in 1977, long before the explosion in camera ownership, the rise of the ‘selfie’ and social media.  I have to wonder, when you consider the sheer number of images taken and shared on a daily basis, if we are risk of proving her right.  She may well have been before her time in suggesting that we don’t really feel we have experienced something if we haven’t taken a picture of it.  And shared it.  In many ways, this need to photograph is like a modern version of the diary.  Only instead of hoarding our treasured secrets, we snap and share ad nauseum.

Whilst I do my upmost to avoid the scattergun approach often encouraged in photography magazines, I sometimes find myself recording images of the same subject repeatedly.  I then have to spend longer on the computer choosing the best and deleting the rest.  Perhaps one carefully composed image would have done?  Given my dislike of post-processing it’s certainly worth bearing in mind.

Some days I photograph what is there.  I need to do more of this.  To explore the images I can create within the small space that I call my own.  In this way I photograph to ‘do’.

Other days I go out with the specific purpose of recording pictures elsewhere, of seeking the new and different with the explicit intention of photographing it.  In this way I ‘do’ to photograph.

Either way, I am trying to spend more time working mindfully with my camera.  Taking care with subject, lighting and composition in order to convey the essence of what I see.  Sometimes I choose to store the memories in my mind rather than on my memory card.  While this data storage system may become corrupted with time, it will never become obsolete.

Perhaps some days I should leave the camera at home.

Mindful Photography Meditation

Last weekend I spent a day teaching a workshop at Selly Manor, in Bournville, Birmingham.  Our topic was ‘Creative Mindfulness: Meditation and Photography.  I planned the day to offer a balance between formal seated meditation practices and opportunities to practice photography as a contemplative experience in the beautiful house and gardens of the venue.

We started close to home, meditating on the body and on the breath.  The body is the means by which we experience each day that life gives us, but how much attention do we pay to it?  We explored the subtle changes in the body as it breathes and we considered our sense of vision in more detail via mediating on an object.  Later in the day we contemplated the actual process of receiving an image into the camera.  We considered how the camera is open to receiving any image and the process is completed without judging or labelling the scene as it is recorded.

A large part of the afternoon was spent on individual practice, seeking to create images that would remind us of the qualities we hoped to enhance through bringing meditation into our lives.  Participants explored ways to represent love and harmony in their images.  The weather brought challenges with a mixture of sunshine and showers, but somehow this made the gardens even prettier as the raindrops glistened in the sunshine that followed.

If the opportunity to take time out of your busy schedule in this way appeals to you, I am offering this workshop again at the Midlands Arts Centre in Edgbaston on 9th August.  Alternatively, if you would really like to treat yourself, I will be teaching a longer workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in late August.  Details of both these workshops are here.

Working with film: learning to let go

Sometimes it seems to me that modern life is all about possession; having the latest gear, clothes, car, phone.  The list is endless as marketeers do a stupendous job of convincing us that life won’t be worth living if we don’t own the latest and best incarnation of their product.  Alongside this comes the ‘the instant gratification society’ where we don’t just want it but we want it now.  And this extends not only to things we must buy but to our pursuit of photography as well.  When film was the norm we had the anticipation of sending away the finished roll to be developed and printed, waiting a week or so to see how the images had turned out.  Yet with the advent of the digital camera we soon became accustomed to that JPEG preview on the rear screen. And how strange it seems now to use a camera which doesn’t allow you the option to see your image immediately after taking it. And taking this one step further, the potential that there will not be an image at all?!

As I mentioned in my last post, experimenting with old cameras comes with the risk that your films with yield nothing more than an attractive black shiny strip of plastic.  Quite photogenic in its own way, but not quite what was intended when you set out to seek images that morning.  At first, I found there was a tendency to curse the waste of time and money; buying the camera and the film, the time spent taking pictures and developing the film.  However I soon realised that as a hobby it offered repeated opportunities to practise letting go.

The ability to let go is one of the cornerstones of a mindful life.  Being prepared to let go of what is and receive what will be.  Observing your reaction to the situation as it develops and runs its course.  When I go out with a film camera I am living in hope, optimistic that my day will be successful photographically.  But how do I define this success?  When you take away the emphasis on the ‘quality’ of the outcome, the day becomes more about the process, the engagement and the moments of life fully explored through taking the time to look carefully.  Who cares if there are no pictures at the end?  I am practising to engage with life as if I had a camera, even when I don’t!

Read this week’s sister post on Letting Go here.

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.

Switching off the autopilot

How would you like more hours in the day?  We spend so much of our modern high-speed lives in a haze of multi-tasking we may actually be missing out on a substantial part of it.  According to Maria Konnikova, author of ‘Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes’,  “When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.”  She goes onto suggest that “meditation-like thought, for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive.”

Of course, the brain coordinates a huge amount of activity for you without your intervention.  Just imagine if you had remember to take each breath, or blink your eyelids regularly; there would never be time for anything else, as our whole existence would revolve around managing our physical body.  Sometimes, however, it seems that we allow our inner autopilot to take on more than it might and the end result is that we get to the end of our walk, morning or day and find we have little recollection of what we actually saw during that time.  The time has gone but we have not experienced it.

If you have ever looked through your photographs and thought “I don’t remember that!” you may well have been on mental autopilot, indulging in a form of ‘photographic multi-tasking’, happily snapping away at all and sundry without paying a great deal of attention to the subject of your photograph.  Personally, I think that digital cameras encourage this approach.  According to figures published in 2013, Mary Meeker estimates that over 500 million images are uploaded daily to Internet sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and Snapchat.  That’s pretty mind boggling!  I remember in the days of film, I would take two 36 exposure rolls with me on a fortnight’s holiday.  That would give me 5 or 6 frames a day, and as a result, I would consider the content of each frame very carefully indeed!  The photographic multi-tasking autopilot was most definitely NOT engaged!

Even if you are using a digital camera, it can be an interesting exercise to limit the number of pictures you make in a day or weekend.  It really encourages you to look very carefully at each scene and explore its full potential with your eyes before you press the shutter.  Engaging more deeply with the experience brings the meditative qualities of photography to the fore, and we can feel the benefits in our images and in ourselves as a result.