Sunday, 20 November 2011

Mindfulness Photography

"Mindfulness or being mindful is being aware of your present moment. You are not judging, reflecting or thinking. You are simply observing the moment in which you find yourself." --- Ozzie Gontag

Do you find yourself juggling multiple demands on your time or multi-tasking several activities at once? You aren't alone. In this fast-paced world so many people are just trying to keep up. You may find yourself  doing homework while listening to music and texting friends, or at work taking phone calls while answering and sending emails and also jotting down notes about what else you have to do that day. Or you may be engaged in a conversation with someone but your mind is off thinking about the problems from the other day or future tasks you need to complete. It's hard to concentrate on so many things at once and do a stellar job with any of it. A good example is driving while talking on the cell phone or sending text messages. We all know the dangers of that combination. The examples are endless but in any of them we are being pulled in multiple directions and it can be quite stressful. Stress is very hard on the mind and body and it is linked to physical ailments and some mental illnesses. Neuroscientists are studying the effects of mindfulness and meditation and are finding many benefits.  It helps to relieve pain, to manage stress and anxiety, to improve focus and attention, to think better, to see things in a new perspective, to increase creativity, improve mood, and to become more aware of what is happening around you and within you. People who practice mindfulness say that they are calmer and happier. Mindfulness is used more in therapy with patients. Mindfulness based cognitive therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy are 2 examples of therapies used to help patients struggling with mental health problems. When I type the word mindfulness into the google search bar on the internet, it came up with 13,700,000 sites on mindfulness alone, which tells me that many people are interested in how mindfulness can improve health and wellbeing. 

Bringing mindfulness into the practice of photography can give you all of the above benefits plus you may discover something very unexpected and extraordinary in the ordinary and mundane. Here is an exercise that I did when I made this photo of vibrant fall coloured leaves hanging from bent branches last weekend. It may not appeal to everyone, but I liked it for a variety of reasons. Think about giving this exercice a try. 

Go outside to a park or even your backyard. Dress warm if it is winter where you are. Take your time and become aware of your environment. Feel the breath go in through your nose to your belly and back out. Walk slowly, continuing to notice your breath. Try to relax your muscles, even though you are walking. Or you could sit on a bench if you like. You could even tell yourself to relax, which should help your shoulder muscles to relax. Let your teeth open slightly, your tongue drop, and relax your facial muscles. Continue taking your time focusing on the breath going in and out and notice any smells that may be around you. Notice how the air, perhaps a breeze, feels on your skin. Notice the sounds around you.  Notice all of your senses. Your mind is a sense; notice any thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. Don't try to push them away nor encourage them by giving them your attention, but instead just notice each thought and let it go, like you notice a cloud in the sky as it floats away. Become mindful of that moment and concentrate on the senses. What in that environment  do you see, that catches your eye? Notice how you feel when you see it. Don't take a picture of it yet. Just notice it. Get closer to it and pay attention to it and what drew your attention to it, the shape, textures, colours, how the light illuminates it, how it smells and feels, shadows, the position of it, and anything else that you may notice about it and how you feel. See it without judgement and without critical thoughts. Just enjoy the moment and if you like, make a photo of it. Don't think about whether it may or may not be something that others will like. Do not rush. Be patient and relaxed. If you find yourself wanting to rush or your mind is wandering off, just notice that and bring your attention back to your breath. This is an example of how we can find beauty and interest in things we may have passed over before, thinking it wasn't worth photographing. Practicing mindfulness in this way can help you to become more mindful at other times in your day as well. If the image you created is something that you enjoy, you may want to print it and hang it on the wall as a reminder to relax and practice mindfulness. I'd be interested in hearing about your mindfulness experience with photography. 

And remember to have fun. Enjoy! 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Mindfulness and Zen Photography

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:
"A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! "(Reps & Sensaki, 1994, pp. 39-40). I found this parable within an article on the internet called Zen and the Art of Photography by Wayne Rowe. Here is the link if you want to check it out  This is just what happened for me when I was making this image of this rock sculpture that I found at Kalamalka Lake, BC recently, (well minus the tigers and the mice). I was there to see the gorgeous colours of the lake that I had heard so much about. I didn't go looking for this little sculpture on the steep hill looking down at the lake, but there it was and it held my attention for the longest time. As with the last rock photo I posted, I noticed the shapes, angles, colours, textures, the light, and where it stood. For a moment my thoughts went to an image of someone there, in the same spot before me admiring the lake, and creating this sculpture while  she or he was there. Then I came back to this moment, my moment, appreciating and enjoying this beautiful image, with the warmth of the sun and how it lit up the sculpture. It was another experience of mindfulness.  I forgot why I was there, or anything from the past or the future. My thoughts were focused on what was before me.  Here is a quote taken from the book God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art by Jan Phillips (2000) - "I found that I began to step back so that I could make an image that was sharp and refined and had the deep space in it, and as I stepped back, I began to see a new kind of image" - Joel Meyerowitz.  When I stepped back to photograph this rock sculpture, the surrounding rocks, grass, and blue-green lake took my breath away with all it's beauty.  Phillips wrote "this is what heals us: this presence to the moment, this attentive looking, this discovery of our relationship with other living things (p.58). You may want to pick up this wonderful book. 

I seem to be attracted to rocks, among other things, in nature. There is something very calming about them. What do you find that attracts you and calms you about nature? Have you had a similar experience? Think about making a photo of an image of something in nature that provokes this calm serene feeling within you. Take time to really see what is before you and notice everything about it.  Enjoy! 

A stone can be broken, but it cannot be forced to become something it is not. Those of us who aspire to meditation need only become like a rock. - Deng Ming-Dao, author of Everyday Tao

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mindfulness and the Power of Now

     Have you ever been so focused on something that you are doing that you forget about everything else? Many people are talking about or writing about the concept of mindfulness and mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment. Our thoughts often take us back to the past or we may worry about the future, all of which take us out of the present moment. In The Power of Now; A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment Eckhart Tolle encourages the reader to "withdraw attention from the past and future whenever they are not needed" (2004, p54-55).  Thoughts about the past or future can often feel good when thinking about positive memories or when looking forward to a fun activity, but if those thoughts are negative it can cause us to feel anxious. A little anxiety is natural. It happens to everyone and can sometimes even be helpful, like being anxious about an upcoming test prompting us to study. But if we are living in the past or future too often, we are not seeing what is right before us, or within us, and experiencing the present moment. More and more people are practicing meditation, mindfulness, and being in the now. Thousands of people watched Eckhart Tolle on Oprah's Winfrey's webcast and have bought his books because they were interested in this concept. I was one of them. Mindfulness is used in therapy more and more by psychiatrists, psychologist, and counsellors. 
     When I am photographing, whether it is a portrait of someone, or a macro shot of a cupcake (or rocks as you can see above), or when I was documenting my mother's 80th birthday party, or capturing images of pelicans on the lake, etc, I get fully present in the moment and so focused on what I am doing that I think of only that and time escapes me. My focus is on what is before me. It isn't just what I see either. I become more connected to my subject somehow. I am not thinking about the past or future. 
     This was my experience photographing these rocks one morning. It was an assignment from my photography instructor. The assignment was to get up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the early morning light. The assignment was to learn about the use of light in photography, but when engaged in this activity I was laying in a gravel playground playing with and paying attention to rocks, their colour, shape, texture, how smooth yet rough they were, how they balance on one another. I did not worry about anything else but what was before me. It was very relaxing and enjoyable. 

Monday, 7 November 2011

Cameras and photos doing good around the world

By now you are probably starting to get a sense of how photography can be therapeutic. There are photographers, psychiatrists, therapists, researchers, teachers, journalists, and probably many other disciplines using cameras and photos either as a therapeutic tool or do help others. Photos can tell us a lot. Like the old saying goes,  "A picture is worth a thousand words" (author unknown). Anyway, I'm just heading out to work but I wanted to share a few websites that you can check out to see how some people are using photography to help others. Psychiatrist Joel Walker uses photography in Toronto, Canada to help patients look at themselves and realize their potential. His website is at Psychologist Judy Weiser founded the PhotoTherapy Centre in Vancouver, Canada.  In phototherapy sessions with a trained therapist the focus is on snapshots brought in by the client. Ms Weiser trains other therapists all over the world to use phototherapy techniques. Her website is at You've probably heard of the film "Born into Brothels". This film was a result of photographer Zana Briski giving cameras to children living in the red light district of Calcutta. These children's photographs are available to purchase and proceeds support their education and well-being. Check out the website for more information about Kids with Cameras, now called "Kids with Destiny".  Another photographer named Jeremy Cowart started "Help-Portrait" to use his skills to take portraits of people in need, who may never even have an opportunity to have their photo taken, and then give the portraits to them. This has spread to many places in the world with groups of photographers coming together with hair stylists and makeup artists to use their skills to give to others in December of each year. The website, if you want to check it out, is These are just a few of the many many people who are using photography either as a therapeutic tool or to help others in a variety of ways. I hope you check them out. You may be inspired. Have a wonderful day.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Image Scavenger Hunt

Photography can help you to start seeing things in a new light, which can then open your eyes to new possibilities and perspectives. This happens for me all the time. When my photography instructor assigned a scavenger hunt I was surprised at what I actually discovered and it left me with warm feelings about the community I live in and the goodness of humankind. The assignment was to find 5 items and they had to represent these 5 words; alive, hidden, soft, red, and old. So I went for an early morning drive around town.  I found a lot of beautiful images, especially with that early morning light, but I discovered something deeper; human kindness and generosity.

While at an antique machinery park a nice young man showed me around and, not only did I find all sorts of old, unusual and beautiful items to photograph, but the sun shone on spider webs that were hidden in the grass covered in dew. As I was about to step into an old shop the young man stopped me so he could catch a huge jumping spider. I can't recall the name of it, but this kind fellow told me that this type of spider jumps and it also bites. I so was thankful that he prevented me from being bit by a spider. As I stopped at various places on the outskirts of town, I enjoyed the peacefulness, the fresh air, and I was totally focused on the moment. I stopped at a lake just a few minutes out of town and photographed some ducks while an older gentleman was packing up the fish he had caught that morning. I had a conversation with him about his life, how his wife died from cancer, and how he was living with cancer himself. He offered me his catch of the day and I graciously accepted his kind offer. On my way home I noticed some flowers at the end of a driveway with a sign that said "Free". I photographed the flowers, said hello to the lady and her cute little dogs in the driveway. She had picked these flowers from her garden that morning and was giving them to anyone who stopped by. I accepted a small soup can full of flowers and headed on my way. As I drove back home my car was perfumed with the sweet aroma of that kind lady's flowers.

In this day and age we can get so busy with multiple demands on our time that we sometimes just feel like staying home in our own little secure worlds. Getting out to do this assignment showed me not only so much of the visual beauty around me, it got me out into nature, enjoying the sunshine, a little aromatherapy, and I also discovered the little kindnesses of strangers in an ordinary day. In hindsight I wished I could have photographed the people that I met along the way. Maybe next time.

You may want to take on this challenge yourself. Go around your community or even just your neighbourhood, looking for images.  Choose something else to hunt for if you like; it doesn't have to be something red, alive, old, soft, and hidden. Just get out in your community with your camera and you just may be surprised by what you discover.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

My Photography Journey

I got my first camera when I was a teenager and I took pictures of my friends back then. As a mother I took as many photos of my kids as I could afford to get developed. I had few technical skills, but I loved capturing special moments of my children. I got my first digital camera 10 or 11 years ago, which I've mentioned before, and at that time the sky was the limit. I let go of worry about getting each photograph perfect so as not to waste film or worry about what I took pictures of, and I took thousands of photos. From that time on I continue to photograph family events and places I visit. I met some wonderful people along the way that have become life long friends. I've taken photography lessons through local photographers to help develop my skills and the homework assignments were thought provoking and therapeutic.  Photography has also allowed for creative artistic expression and this has a lot of therapeutic value as well. I highly recommend photography to everyone. You don't need to be a professional photographer to feel the therapeutic benefits of photography