“I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.” — John Muir
Earlier this year, I came across this link about how practicing “mindful photography” can be a fun, simple exercise that boosts happiness and promotes greater well-being.
As a fan of photography and someone who has been trying to integrate more mindfulness practices into her life, I was intrigued. The instruction seemed straightforward:
“Throughout the course of the day today, you will take photographs of your everyday life. […] think about the things in your life that are central to who you are. If you wanted someone to understand you and what you most care about, how would you capture this? While this is highly personal, some examples might include sports equipment [or] a memento from a favorite time spent with your romantic partner [..]. Have your camera or camera phone handy and take at least 5 photographs of these things today.”
After reading the link a few times, I still didn’t “get” what mindful photography was all about. As I thought about it further, I realized it was probably the same as with other mindfulness and meditation practices: there was no “right” way to do it. Once I got past that idea of doing it perfectly, it occurred to me that it was likely simply about taking photographs with intention.
I vowed to try this at some point during the summer and I kept coming across the article in my browser bookmarks. I kept being “too busy” to practice mindful photography. Of course, “being too busy” meant I needed to stop and do it all the more.
One lovely summer day, I was biking past the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of my favorite places to steal a few minutes of time. I chained up my bike and walked into the museum. Its cool air was noticeable on my skin that was warm from biking in the sun.
Instead of looking at the exhibits this time, however, I headed for the grassy park-like area that exists between the buildings. It made me happy to see people gathered there, eating lunches, having conversations and reading books.
This was the inspiration I needed to finally try out a mindful photography experiment. I sat on an unoccupied bench under a tree. I took my phone out of my bag and placed it on the cement railing next to the bench. I made sure the sound was turned down. I set my intention: I would take photos of the first two things I saw when I opened my eyes.
I was curious what these objects would be, what they would say about me and how they would look photographed with a calm mind. Would they look different than similar things I’d documented with my camera previously? Maybe they’d be something totally new that I’d never thought to photograph before.
I lay on the bench, closed my eyes and focused on breathing and clearing my thoughts. I heard the leaves rustling and the sun felt warm on my face as it fought its way through leaves of the massive tree shading me. I heard muffled laughter and a dog and its owner walk past. Focus. Focus. Focus.
After twelve minutes or so, I finally had the feeling of being thoughtless, or at least, was only thinking about how my breath moved though my body. I had to fight to stay awake as I had become so relaxed. This is no small feat for someone who frequently has sleep struggles.
A few more minutes passed and I opened my eyes. I reached for my camera. Still lying on my back, I snapped a picture of the first very amazing thing I saw.
I continued looking at the tree for a few minutes. I was struck by the various shades of green that flowed from it and how the leaves created purple shadows on the trunk and the sidewalk below. I decided these wonderful greens must be “the color of shade,” which would later become the caption of my photo when I loaded it onto my Tumblr. This photo also became the spark for a new Tumblr I want to create called “50 Shades of Shade.”
I decided to get up and take my second photo of the first thing I saw when I stood up. This is what I saw:
You can’t tell from the photo, but the flowers were swarming with bees and other bugs that seemed hungry to soak up the brightness of their yellow petals. The black centers reminded me of the sun during an eclipse. I was struck by how everything seemed to radiate from these dark centers. I dubbed this photo: “the color of sun.”
I’m not entirely sure that I followed the guidelines set out in the article’s instructions, but I did learn a lot from this exercise in mindful photography. I did see and take pictures of things “that are central to who I am and care a lot about.” I have admired and photographed flowers and trees many times, but this time, I saw them in a whole new light. I saw more color, more shadows and more depth in them. They seemed even more beautiful than ever. What’s more, I saw more color, more shadows and more depth in myself.
For a moment, I felt more beautiful than ever, too, because I felt nothing other than utter appreciation for the bold, changing beauty of the natural world, and thanks to having practiced mindfulness, I felt ready to face the inevitable changes that would arise in my day with calm, bold appreciation, too.
Heidi Wachter is the Community Engagement Specialist for Experience Life.