Ways to revitalise – 4

Essentially, if you are happy riding on a railroad that takes you to gorgeous sunsets or sunrises or if you love to chase the Milky Way, then you’re good to go! You’ve found the tune you want to sing! So why change anything?

But if you find yourself wondering why on earth you’ve brought your camera on your walk. If you return from a holiday and find yourself dismayed by the dull predictability of your shots. If you notice dust gathering on a camera that before cooled down only overnight, here are three more techniques for you to try. In other arenas of art, meditation, martial arts and so forth, they are pretty much core practices. Not so in photography. That’s because, in photography, we don’t often engage in what could be called ‘meta’ activities: doing things that are more general than the specifics of photography; they are activities about picture-making.

Many sports and health practices know that while you are acquiring the basic skills – the punching techniques, the stances, the steps – you greatly benefit by understanding what’s going on in your body and your mind. The meta-activities such as meditation, breathing, visualisation all contribute to improving the basic punch, stretch or pose. So with photography when you search for a subject when you are responding to developing situations, it’s obvious that if you have a clear mind free of distractions, unhampered by self-doubt you’ll create with more ease. Once you’ve learned the basic moves – set exposure, focus, frame – what informs the shape of life that enters your camera depends on your thinking, your imagining.

‘The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.’

Ernst Haas

Meditate to calm but not to empty

Quiet and peaceful, relaxed, not empty. Open to thoughts, but not so draughty that thoughts blow in and out of you. Tranquil, but not so relaxed that you’re nodding off to sleep. Sensitive, but not overcome with sensations. That’s the state of mind we’re after.

There are thousands of different ways, and each practitioner has his own set. Many have been used successfully for a thousand years or more. And if you think you’ve never meditated, you’re probably wrong. You have, in your own way, and to meet your own needs. Have you been in a very painful or uncomfortable situation and tried to think of nice, comforting things to get you through? You were meditating. Have you been in love and when far from your sweetheart, you remembered their words, the look in their eyes, reconstructed an event you shared? You were meditating.

Nonetheless, it’s easier to meditate without those emotional pulls or the need to deal with pain. Here one way to get you started. Easy, no strain. And remember you can always stop whenever you want.

• Sit comfortably, in a quiet room, eyes open, look gently at something quiet e.g. the flower. Lighting is best subdued: not too bright, not too dark. You can sit on a chair or the floor: use whatever is most comfortable. Best to keep your back straight with or without support, as you wish.
• Breath through your nose. Don’t hold your breath. Don’t force it. Keep it gentle. As soon as you become aware of your breathing, it will naturally slow down.
• Don’t worry if you fall asleep, but try to stay awake by attending to your breath as it moves in and out through your nose.
• Count two breaths and start again: breathe in normally, breathe out normally count ‘’One’ in your head as you breathe. Breathe in again, normally, breathe out when you want to, normally, through nose, count ‘Two’ in your head during breath out. Breathe in again, breathe out and count ‘Two’ and so on.
• When you’re comfortable doing this, increase count to sets of three. Breathe in: one, two, three. Breathe out: one, two, three.
• As you get into the swing of it, increase the count to rounds of four. Anytime that you feel uncomfortable, stop and breathe normally.
• With more familiarity, you will become more and more aware of your breathing. Also you gain awareness of tiny movements in your body, some of them due to heart beating. If you can feel your heart beating, that’s good! If you feel you want to shrug your shoulders, or heave a big sigh, go ahead. You’re really getting into it!

If you already have a regular meditation practice, that’s great! Carry on. You know you don’t need advanced meditation: all we’re after is to calm brain to allow freedom for creative activity, quietening the internal critic and blue-sky thinking.

As you become familiar with the counting, it becomes more automatic and fades into the background, but it needs just enough conscious effort to keep your mind from wandering. You may find yourself counting ‘twelve, thirteen, forteen’ and realise your mind has drfited into automatic mode. Just start counting again. The regular rhythm calms your mind and thoughts. Above all, the combination of breathing and counting brings your mind into the present, and keeps it there. That prepares the ground for your consciousness to move to higher levels and tap creative forces.

What is all this for? It’s to make space in your head and mind. It’s like taking an unmarked piece of paper, ready to write or doodle on it. Meditation is like doing to the mind what you do quietly tidying up your home: removing unwanted clutter, piling books up, watering the house plants. And doesn’t it feel good once you’ve done that?

Stimulate thought processes by finding associations between two random thoughts or words

This is a simple, fun game that you can play with any helper. They can be partner, friend or relative. A young child can be excellent, as often they have a strongly instinctive feeling for what you need.

• First, think of a photo subject you are interested in. Write it down: it could be ‘portrait’ or ‘building frontage’ or ‘bee on flower’.
• Before the next step, promise yourself that you will take whatever happens next and work with it. You promise yourself not to ask for another word or concept until you’ve really worked it out; until you’ve done your best.
• Now tell your helper you’re going to ask him or her to think of something, anything: it doesn’t have to be something they can see, it’s not a test, it’s not for analysing their personality or anything like that. Ask them to put a name on what they’re thinking.
• Write down what they say.

Now you have to figure out how to link the two ideas in a visual way. This game exercises the lateral thinking, associative muscles of your mind. It forces you to deviate from straight-line thinking.

As an example, let me tell you how I ‘discovered’ this technique. During a workshop someone mentioned that he was off to Mallorca for a holiday. His problem was that he didn’t want to make general holiday snaps but couldn’t think of what he wanted to photograph. On a whim, I made him commit to whatever was going to happen next. Although rather puzzled, he agreed. I randomly picked someone in the workshop and asked her to say the first word that came into their head. She had an apple on the desk, and sure enough, she said ‘apple’.

‘There you go’ I said. ‘You photograph apples!’

The workshop participants weren’t very impressed. I then went on to make them think about different aspects of apples. ‘Think about all the different things relating to apples. Orchards. Ice cream flavours. Apple pie. Fruit market.’

Ah, then they got it. 

Soon lots of ideas were being shared. And the biggest smile came from the man about to go to Mallorca. ‘I could photograph apple blossoms, the bees, the trees! Actually,’ he added excitedly ‘I love gardening, and could photograph all kinds of fruit trees. I could photograph apples in every country I visit!’

Go for it!

Get up early and scribble uncensored thoughts

Creativity, like every human activity, becomes easier with practice. Use your notebook as the scratch-pad for anything. Free-form your thoughts. It’s not for anyone else to read, only you, so use it as you like. Even if it’s a shopping list or for noting a phone number, or URL for an interesting Web site, or to remind you to look up a photographer whose work you don’t know. When you get into this, if you don’t have your notebook with you, you’ll scribble on the nearest bit of paper — a cafe receipt, bus ticket, back of an envelope. Feel free to do that. Then stick the scrap in the book.

The ‘get up early’ part relates to an observation shared by many: when you first wake up, the censor or inhibitors aren’t fully awake either. That’s the time to slip past them and get those delicate thought bubbles down on paper.

In large part, this is an exercise in ignoring that irritating little voice in your head that criticises, censors and nags you pretty much all the time. When scribbling thoughts down, you are reserving safe areas that your internal censor can’t touch. Because it’s too late by then: the though has come out. And once it’s out, it can come alive.

Some people make an art of the notebook, using tickets and post-cards or odd prints to liven up the page and make it pretty. Or you can use pens with different coloured inks to make the entries easier to separate out, and make the page look more interesting. But it’s your notebook — make it as simple or complicated as you like.

Over time, you will discover that you’re creating a great resource. For instance, some ideas come ahead of the time you are ready to make them a reality. It’s as if they turn up in order to chivvy the unconscious and subconscious parts of your mind into action. It could be years before it all comes together: your skills and capabilities, your thinking and the time and opportunity, or the means. When you flick over old note-books you may find an entry that you’d forgotten but it’s as if it was written yesterday. It’ll be exactly what you want — a contact number, a keyword, or just a reminder that you’ve had this idea at the back of your mind for the a few years. And, now, it’s the time for the flower to open!

Enjoy, create and live!

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