Last month I delivered some workshops to groups of teenagers in two Cumbernauld schools on the subject of creative nature photography. Encouraging myself and others to see the beauty of nature around us in quirky and unique ways is something that I am drawn to and really enjoy doing. Photography is a great tool for initiating this engagement but I am becoming increasingly aware that there is something more inherent within us that has a need for the kind of connections that photography can help create (or rekindle, depending on how you view the situation!). A question raised during one of these workshops captured the essence of this and has triggered deeper reflection since, and so I am dedicating this blog entry to exploring some of the thoughts that have arisen.
The question, asked by a student named Jack, was this: “How do you notice these things?”
It’s a good question and I gave a fairly concise answer at the time. It tied in well with a “mini-project” I created based on my own response when addressing a similar question a few years ago, which formed part of the school workshops and also has a mention later on in this piece of writing.
But before we delve into that, it is first worth considering the following two questions:
How often do you look about you during your waking day?
How often do you “see” during your waking day? (i.e. really notice what you are looking at; the details, patterns, vibrancy, textures etc.)
For the majority of us the answer to the first question will be “all the time” and the second question “hardly ever”. We need to look about us in our daily lives to function, but our brain takes care of the rest. Generally, we will only “see” if something is worthy of particular recognition and even then we likely won’t take notice of the full details, only those that require attention. This is of increasing concern considering the growing number of distractions we are exposed to in our everyday lives and the resultant impact these combined factors have on our health and wellbeing.
Technology is an obvious culprit and target for blame, but that aside we spend a huge amount of our day lost in thought; reliving that conversation from last week, plans for tonight, what Bob said that caused upset, what Mary said that made us laugh, that impending work deadline, the bill that still needs to be paid, what’s for lunch... the list is endless. We have become a society of distraction and it is increasingly encouraged, especially when coupled with exposure to technological devises and their applications; in essence, the noise of modern life. All the while we are not really seeing what is around us.
When we take the time to quieten the internal chatter, focus on the moment we are in, and look about us with full attention, we begin to see. And how much there is… the overwhelmingly beautiful abundance of it, patiently waiting with utmost modesty and unassuming exquisiteness for us to notice its presence.
Quieting the mind can be a hard habit to break, so for anyone looking for a bit of guidance, a technique I find helpful involves bringing awareness to thought and focusing on breath. By realising the brain has gone off on a tangent of thoughts it can be stopped it in its tracks, take a deep breath with focus breathing, and look around. It’s likely that thoughts will start up again relatively quickly, and so it’s a simple case of repeating the above. The more this is practiced, the easier it becomes to still the mind and really pay attention to our surroundings. This blog entry has a focus on seeing, due to the nature of photography and the question I was asked in that workshop, but when you are alive in the moment all of our senses become heightened… sounds, smells, touches as well as sight.
This brings me onto the “mini-project” mentioned above. It’s called a Closer Look, based on a photography project that involves taking an overview image of a place followed by a series of close-up images of what was found there, to show the small things that make up the big picture. But a camera isn’t necessarily required for the exercise. It is an activity for you to carry out next time you happen to be outside, going about your daily life. Give yourself a moment to take A Closer Look at an area that you usually overlook, and allow yourself a few minutes to explore and see what is there. Notice all those things that you wouldn’t normally pay attention to… from the variety of organisms present, to patterns, colours and textures, to the sounds and smells.
The more we put our awareness into the moment we are in, the more we “notice these things”.
Capturing pretty images is one outcome of this, and a small piece of a puzzle that assists in illustrating the bigger picture; that by giving ourselves time to “notice these things” we become more connected to our environment, more grounded in the moment, and we transform our internal environment too by inviting calmness instead of chaos. It’s a gentle reminder that all is okay, the world is a beautiful place and we are a part of that beauty.
Thanks to Jack for asking his question and providing inspiration for this blog entry.