PART I: The Art of Photography as an Expression of Living in the Moment
“The times I spend in nature are the some of the moments I feel most alive. My senses are awakened. Nature brings the gift of inner stillness while whirling, buzzing, and singing fauna encompasses you. Photography gives me a vehicle to stop, and breathe, and enjoy the fullness of the moment.” — Sandra Rothenberg, PhD
AS SHARED in this quote, outdoor experience and the art of photography may connect us on a very deep level with the beauty of our natural surroundings. In the modern world, particularly with the advent of ubiquitous hand-held technology, it becomes easier and easier to miss out on this beauty and the opportunities to feel most alive.
In pursuit of my doctoral degree in psychology, I have learned the importance of utilizing specific methods and techniques to counteract tendencies of going about the day on auto-pilot, and the art and appreciation of wildlife photography is a perfect example of such a method.
We examine the problem of sleepwalking through life, followed by an introduction to mindfulness and meditation as a suite of psychological tools that are available to help us remember we are alive, and finally an exploration of the art of photography and the enjoyment of wildlife images as a vivid expression of mindfulness and living in the moment.
Each morning, after sleeping and dreaming through the night, we awaken and often step immediately into yet another world—that of our wandering mind, our internal narrative, our “story.” This constant running chatter, always focused on the future or the past, can block our ability to enjoy what is actually happening right now.
Intellectually, it is easy to comprehend that the present moment is all we ever really have, but it is quite a different thing to viscerally understand or experience this. Again, we are blocked from this experience by the story in our heads that has been running on a loop since we first grasped language in childhood. This may be one of the great problems of the human condition—to really notice and remember that we are, in fact, alive.
LUCKILY, the technique of meditation and accompanying philosophy of mindfulness have been developed over several thousands of years specifically for the purpose of quieting the thinking mind, shedding our automatic judgments and reactions, and enabling the experience of the present (at least for moments at a time). You may have come upon the terms meditation and mindfulness, and for many people, these evoke images of sunsets, incense, and lotus flowers—or of someone in yoga gear sitting cross-legged by the ocean in a state of bliss and tranquility.
However, while peace and calm may be byproducts of training, the practice of meditation is more akin to the taming of a wild beast—that beast being our habitual wandering mind. Mindfulness can be seen as the overarching ability to pay attention to the present moment while at the same time not being carried away by our “story.” It may be useful to look at meditation as a specific exercise that helps develop the skill of mindfulness.
In addition to meditation practice, mindfulness can be developed by bringing a special kind of attention to your daily life. The art of photography is a unique example of such an activity, as both the act of taking photos and the appreciation of them can ground us firmly in the present — not only the craft of patience and receptiveness in capturing an image, but also the act of turning these pages and experiencing the beauty and idiosyncrasy of nature for yourself.
The purpose of this column is to remind us of our ability to focus on the richness of life for what it is right now in this moment versus how this moment could be better (which is the status quo for our auto-pilot mode); and to showcase the art of photography as a direct expression of mindfulness (e.g., helping us see things as if for the first time).
WHAT ARE MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION?
The term “mindfulness” is a translation of the ancient Pali word, “sati,” which actually means something along the lines of “to remember” or “to keep in mind.” It is this repeated remembering of the miraculous nature of simply being alive that is at the heart of mindfulness.
One particular method of training the mindfulness muscle is through meditation. Contrary to what some may believe, this is not a method of retreat or running away from reality behind the safety of closed eyes. Rather, meditation is a means of coming face-to-face with the constant voice in your head, not allowing yourself to grasp for a distraction (e.g., your phone), and gradually enabling that voice to calm down. Also, it is necessary to emphasize that consistent meditation is a significant undertaking, but one with incredible rewards. There are a variety of ways to meditate, but the basic structure is as follows:
BASIC BREATHING MEDITATION
- Find a comfortable seated position. Don’t worry about sitting up perfectly straight, but attempt to be in a position that is energized and awake. Practice the awareness you would like to have during your normal daily activities.
- Focus on the sensations of the breath. Just feel the raw physical sensations of the air coming in and out, wherever it is most noticeable for you. It may be in the rising and falling of the stomach, or the air filling up and emptying the lungs. It may be particularly useful to focus on the sensations of the nostrils, where you can feel the coolness of the air as it comes in, and the warmth of the air as it leaves. Simply focus on feeling those sensations as fully as possible.
- The mind will inevitably wander from the breath. Notice where the mind has wandered to (e.g., “planning,” “worrying,” “boredom,” etc.) and gently return the focus to the physical sensations of the breath. This is where you are truly flexing the mindfulness muscle. Each time you come back, you are taking power away from the wandering mind. You may be quick to judge yourself as a poor meditator when you notice your mind has wandered, but the fact that you’ve caught yourself is a good thing — it means you’re really doing it.
- Repeat. Just like repetitions in the gym or developing any skill — consistent practice is essential.
Roseate Spoonbill | By Mark Rivera
of Key Biscayne, Florida, USA
TRY THIS OUT
- Set a timer for five minutes and try out the four steps shown above.
- Use a smartphone app such as “Insight Timer” for silent or guided meditations.
Man at Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA | By Trixi Huish
of Sarasota, Florida, USA
REFLECTIONS ON APPRECIATING NATURE
Photographers must be present to what unfolds before them in nature to capture the moment. Here are a few quotes from photographers, as well as from those in other disciplines interested in clarity of mind and the direct perception of reality:
“Nature draws us to return into the wilderness. There’s something about the energy of a place—energy that can only be felt, but not put into words.” — Dee Ann Pederson
“If I am stressed or in need of an escape, I go to a nature preserve. Photographing the deer, coyotes, bobcats, and birds is an incredible release.” — David Rosenzweig
“When you put the frame up to your eye, the world continues outside the frame. So what you put in and what you leave out are what determines the meaning or potential of your photograph.” — Joel Meyerowitz
“Maybe happiness is this: not feeling like you should be elsewhere, doing something else...” — Isaac Asimov