Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

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.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

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.

Forsythia
Forsythia

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.

Creating the World With Our Words

There are, and have been, so many theories about what what differentiates human beings from all the other animals. Some of the theories I’ve encountered recently include:

  • The ability to copy each other’s actions and ideas, and then pass on those actions or ideas. These actions and ideas are referred to as memes.
  • The use of complex language.
  • The use of tools.
  • The ability to reason.

Now, I know that many of these attributes are contested, both as to whether they actually are unique to human beings, and  as to whether they are definitional of human beings. I make no claims for any of them. They just started me thinking.

As human beings, we tend to need to systematize our understanding of the universe. We seem to have a need to create intellectual structure. We are of the kingdom “animal”, whereas the pine tree, while still living, is of the kingdom “plant”. I majored in Classics, which was in the same division as English literature, though in a different division from the History department, even though we required several history classes in order to graduate.My self is composed of many parts: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Animals are often categorized into groupings of wild animals, farm animals and pets.

All of which leads me to ask: Why do  we do this? What do we achieve by the creation of this order? What happens if we try to experience the universe unfiltered by the categories which we impose upon it? Would we simply be overwelmed, unable to cope with treating each unique object as a thing in and of itself? Probably. I suspect the closest we come is when we engage in mindfulness meditation. Nonetheless, what do we miss by organizing our world so completely? This process is, after all, the root of stereotyping, by which we assume we know far more about an individual based on things we believe to be true of most members of a group to which they belong.

I don’t have a particular solution to this quandry. More of a suggestion: take a little time today, and imagine the world around you if you didn’t already have a system for it. How would you see it?

Mindfulness and Time

When we think of mindfulness, we usually associate it with meditation. We think of it as a specific type of sitting quietly and paying attention to something specific (often our breathing). Yet this type of mindfulness meditation is intended as a first step. We want to bring this sort of attention to everything we do, whether we are “meditating” or going about our everyday life. One of the most powerful applications of this mindfulness is the impact it has on how one spends time.

If I am paying attention to everything I do, I am less likely to do things that I would consider a waste of time. If I am “mindfully” playing a computer game I use for procrastination, I am unlikely to feel good about doing so for more than a few minutes. If I am “mindfully” watching TV, and discover that the show isn’t holding my attention, I’m likely to decide to do something else, something that will make me feel better about myself.

I have the feeling I need to introduce more mindfulness into my life right now. I need to pay attention, not just to my breathing, but to how I spend my time. I need to pay attention to where I am, and why I’m there.

Routine, to a large degree, obviates the need for mindfulness. A routine (such as going to CubeSpace every day) works to keep one on track. Lack of structure requires far more attention to what one is doing, what one needs to be doing, and how to get there. And when I say “one”, in this case, I really mean “I”.

Mindfulness meditation is one step I can take towards focusing myself. Another is heading out of the house to get work done (I’m in a coffee shop as I write this). A third step is setting up rituals around work (such as writing a blog post as I begin work each day at a coffee shop).

Mindfulness is about spirituality, but it’s also about getting work done better and more efficiently.

Mindfulness Through Pain

Back when I was meditating regularly, when I was experiencing pain, even fairly intense pain, I found that if I concentrated upon the pain I was able to better tolerate it. When I really tried to focus upon the pain itself, to really feel where it was located and how it felt, it turned out that in any given moment, the pain itself wasn’t so bad. It was the ongoing nature of the pain, the sense that the pain was present and was going to continue to be present for who knows how long, that made bearing the pain difficult. I don’t know if this is a common experience for those who meditate or not (or if I’m the only one strange enough to look at pain as a potential focus for mindfulness meditation), but it was certainly my experience.

This came to mind recently, as I’ve been thinking about mindfulness and pain in a somewhat different context. Yesterday morning, getting out of the shower, I reached for my towel. Somehow in the process of grabbing my towel, I managed to do something unpleasant to the muscles around my neck. As long as I keep my neck vertical and still, everything is good. Bend my neck down or up, or twist my neck side to side, and it hurts. The pain can be anything from a gentle stretching ache to a sharp shooting pain. The obvious answer is to keep my neck fairly still. Which is where my musings on mindfulness and pain come in.

I am being forced to be mindful about how I hold my neck because otherwise I experience pain. Overall, I am not necessarily finding this a particularly spiritually satisfying form of mindfulness, but it is pushing me to think back to other forms. When it first happened, I had high hopes. After all, I’d profitably combined mindfulness and pain before, perhaps it would work well, this way also.

Not so much. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that mindfulness is largely about being mindful for it’s own sake, rather than for the sake of avoiding pain. There seems to be something a little odd about seeking mindfulness in order to limit pain. The other part of the issue is that I haven’t been meditating consistently recently. I think knitting has largely taken the place of the meditation in my life, and while it fulfills many of the same functions (relaxation, clarity of mind, peace of spirit), it does not provide the sharpness of mental focus that mindfulness meditation provided me.

I’m beginning to think (continuing to think) that I need to make time in my life for meditation again. The trick, as with all of life, is doing it.