At my current job, whether at the assisted living facility or the nursing home, my walk distinguishes me. Specifically, the speed at which I walk. If I were to walk at my normal pace, I would have to weave my way between residents like a driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. And admittedly, there are staff that do–especially the nursing staff, for whom the goal
is to get to the next patient quickly.
I, however, have learned to consciously slow my walk. To walk at a similar pace to that of the residents. It communicates that I’m available to talk, willing to literally as well as figuratively accompany them on their journeys. And often it does lead to the start of a real conversation as people strike up conversations as I walk besides them.
I contrast this to the instructions I was given when I started my first job as a market researcher. The corporate environment there was one of business-like efficiency. We, as new hires, were instructed to always walk through the offices with purpose and direction–which meant, quickly.
I am struck by the difference: in the beginning I was to walk quickly in order to show clients that there was no time wasted. Now, I walk slowly to communicate to my clients that they aren’t wasting my time if they want to talk with me.
Occasionally, I still catch myself striding along, in a hurry to get to a meeting, or to the next item on my agenda. And I catch myself, and slow down. I remember that my walk communicates something, and that walking quickly means, “I don’t have time for you.”
Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.
Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.
Looking at a photograph is very similar.
When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).
This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.
When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.
For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.
The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.