little voice

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I took part in a mindful photography course last weekend, and this tulip had quite an effect on me!

The tutor, Jill Woodman ( http://katherinewoodman.co.uk/blog/tag/mindfulness/ ) asked the group which qualities we associated with mindfulness. Some favourites were: compassion, connectedness, balance and feeling grounded. She then asked us to take a photo which would represent or depict the quality we chose. I struggled to choose because there are so many things I get from mindfulness, but after some reflection I started thinking about the way that the stillness of mindfulness practice can often allow me to hear my inner voice – which can get lost in the clutter of day-to-day life.

So, umbrellas, (monsoon conditions ensued) phones and cameras at the ready – we went out to explore some nearby gardens with our chosen quality in mind. I came across a patch of glossy, rain-spattered, dark purple tulips that really caught my eye – and this one in particular. The little white stamen right in the middle of the flower seemed to sum up for me what my inner voice feels like – sometimes hidden, sometimes tiny and overlooked, but always central.

I felt really moved when I found this tulip and the tiny flower it held inside, because it reminded me to look a little deeper for my inner voice and to find some stillness where I can let it blossom.

symmetry

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I noticed this image on a recent walk by a mountain lake in Wales. I was drawn to the reflection of the reeds and the twisted shapes, textures and colours emerging from the water.

Only one problem – the broken reed to the right of the picture.

When I looked at the image on my computer I noticed how frustrated I felt about how it ruined the symmetry of the image. I tried cropping it, photoshopping it, all sorts of things to get rid of the annoying reed.

Feeling curious about my reaction, I looked up ‘symmetry’ on Wikipedia and it offers one possible meaning: ‘a vague sense of harmonious and beautiful proportion and balance.’
I delved further into Google hoping to find a definition, and found that words associated with symmetry include: ‘regularity, evenness, uniformity, equilibrium, consistency, congruity, conformity, agreement, correspondence, orderliness, equality.’

Mindfulness encourages us to welcome and embrace the not so harmonious aspects of our lives as well as the harmonious ones, so that we can move towards psychological balance or equanimity (calmness). I guess this is different to the apparent perfection of symmetry – but it is about balance.

The idea is that the more experiences, body sensations, feelings and thoughts we can allow in, then the more diluted and less intense everything is. If I pour red food colouring into a bowl of water, it will become red. If I pour the same amount into a lake, it will make barely any difference. In other words – we can cope with so much more when we allow everything in, even the difficult stuff. Then, like the lake, we may feel some disturbance at the surface but deep below the surface we can find an accepting stillness.

So I’m learning to love this picture just as it is, enjoying the feel of it, the atmosphere, and most of all – the broken reed.

sit down next to me

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This image came to me while I was having my coffee break in a quiet corner off the busy A6. It was sunny and warm enough to sit outside (I know – slightly unusual in Manchester in March) and read a book for 20 minutes. Book of choice was 'The Little Book of Contemplative Photography' by Howard Zehr and I found this exercise which I just had to have a go at – so I dug out my phone, which doesn’t have the best camera but hey.

The exercise invited me to find an image and really see it – in other words – examine it, describe it: the shapes, the light, what it reminds me of.

Next, he suggested I became aware of how I feel when I look at the image, noting any emotions that come up for me.

And finally, what I think – in other words noticing the thoughts, interpretations and insights that come to mind when I look at the image.

So this is what I saw – a reflected chair, almost fluid-looking.
I felt happy because it reminded me of liquid, the sea and holidays.
When it came to thinking, I thought it was a pleasant surprise to see an object which normally seems so solid and rigid, looking so soft and flowing.

So, if you fancy a creatively contemplative coffee-break – dig out your phone..

Absolute beginners

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We all have to start somewhere – and going back to the beginning can be liberating.

One of the first things I learned when I started studying mindfulness was a concept called ‘beginner’s mind’.  This describes a way of experiencing the world with an almost child-like quality, living in the moment and being completely absorbed in whatever each minute brings.

Using our beginner’s mind involves suspending our usual way of labelling and identifying objects and experiences based on what we ‘know’ and instead approaching life from a place of naivety and openness – like a child exploring the world and being fascinated with each experience as it unfolds.

I took this photo through the eyes of my beginner’s mind.  I was attracted to the shapes that the salt-blistered paint creates and the colours of the layers, peeling back to reveal the weathered wood below.  I was drawn as well to the colour and texture of the rust on the padlock and the way it contrasts with the smooth purple paint behind.  The sunlight seems to add an almost 3D-like quality to the picture – smoothing and throwing the paint into relief in turn.

I’m finding that having a gently curious and unknowing mind opens the possibility of finding beauty in places where I wouldn’t normally expect it.

Kan

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The good news is – taking photographs mindfully means that there’s no such thing as a bad shot or subject matter.  If we look at our surroundings, seeing objects without forming any particular attachment to them and de-focus our gaze a little, then sometimes we can find beauty where we least expect it.

I took this photo one evening around dusk when I was walking along the seafront in Brighton.  Squinting and de-focussing my eyes a little, I noticed the blur of the car headlights and the way they contrasted with the dark blue sea behind.

When I was learning Tai Chi, I remember the instructor talking about a Japanese martial arts technique called ‘Kan’.  He explained that when facing an opponent in martial arts, it helps to adopt an unfocussed gaze when looking towards them – as if we were looking towards the sea in the distance.

Eli Landa from evolutionarypathways.com writes:

“When you zero-in, and focus intently on something, you narrow your perspective and your field of vision.  The mind stops and dwells on the object of concentration. This is when thinking begins….. look at your opponent as if gazing at a mountain far away in the distance… This allows for a much broader field of vision to prevail. It prevents the mind from becoming fixated and allows the full capacities of intuition and insight to come into play.”

So the next time I take my camera out, if I can keep my eyes and mind softly open – then hopefully I can let the big picture unfold.

You can’t stop the waves

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Photography has been something I’ve had fun with ever since I was old enough to hold a camera. My Dad’s a photographer so strips of negatives hanging on the washing-line to dry was pretty normal in our house.

I’ve also discovered how enjoyable mindfulness is for me and I now like to have fun with mindful photography. For me this is about stopping and looking around – perhaps tuning into my breathing or to the sounds I can hear – this helps me to become more aware of my immediate surroundings… and often a photograph will follow.

I took this picture on a recent holiday, the weather was warm and the sea was pretty wild. I noticed this figure walking tentatively towards the waves, as if mesmerised. The whole scene looked almost monochrome or silver in colour.

One of the themes of mindfulness is about learning to ride the waves of our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, rather than getting caught up and tumbled around in them. This is summed up beautifully by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who teaches mindfulness meditation which he believes helps people to cope better with stress, anxiety and pain – he says:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”