Mindfulness and Photography

By Catherine Sproat

There are many types of meditation and finding one that works for you is very important. Vipassana meditation is just one of many and the one that I have been practicing for three years. Vipassana meditation is also known as mindfulness meditation and insight meditation.  

Mindfulness is a word that we hear often these days. It’s the process of bringing attention to the present moment, away from thoughts of the future and the past and away from judgments about the present. It’s making contact with our lived experience of what is here now.  

When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re training our minds to focus on one thing in a moment, instead of allowing our minds to wander and chatter. We become aware of the noise of our thoughts and how often we are focused on things other than the present moment. We may notice ourselves worrying about tomorrow or thinking about what we’re going to have for supper. One way of starting this practice is by simply focusing on your breath. Notice your in-breath and your out-breath. When you realize that your mind has wandered elsewhere, you simply bring your attention gently back to the breath.

A lot of people practice meditation on a daily basis. Some find that they are able to ‘sit on the cushion’ even twice a day. Others find it difficult to practice daily, so they practice only a few times a week. And some people, like me, find alternative ways to practice when sitting on the cushion just isn’t an option.  

A form of mindfulness meditation that I have been doing for years, without even knowing it, is engaging in my hobby - photography. I had never thought of photography as a form of meditation until about a year ago.

I had made a point of practicing meditation on a daily basis. Occasionally, I’d run out of time in my daily life to meditate and I’d feel somewhat out of sorts. On some of the days when I wasn’t able to practice, I’d take my camera and head out on an adventure.  I’ve always found photography to be a stress outlet and can sit and wait for that perfect picture for a long period of time.  

The picture below was taken near Gimli. When I pulled up to the nest on the pole, the nest showed no action or life. After watching and waiting about thirty minutes, the nest came to life and I was fortunate enough to get several pictures of an Osprey mom and baby. During that waiting time, I was quiet and my only intention was to see what would happen. I didn’t worry about anything and I didn’t allow myself to be distracted by other people or cars around me.

When people start to meditate, they occasionally get frustrated because they don’t feel they are ‘doing it right.’ They find it difficult to hold their attention on one thought or one thing for any length of time and they find that the mind chatter is difficult to stop and avoid. When I think of how this looks through the lens of a camera, I see it as the image below.  Having experienced this myself on one or more occasions, I see that nothing is clear or crisp and there is no clear focus.  Instead there is a faint image of what I’m focusing on (usually my breath), and it’s pushed aside by other thoughts and feelings.

Some people give up at this point and find that it’s either too difficult or think that they just aren’t ready for this practice. After a few years of practicing, I find that my mind has been more calm - not perfect, but calm and clearer, like the photo below. I have found that, even though I still have days when I can’t stop my mind, I am able to calm it during my sits and even throughout the day when things aren’t going the way I wish they would and I find myself getting frustrated.

Now when I’m out on an adventure with my camera and I find something of interest that I would like to capture, I find that I can better maintain my focus on that single thing. I can ignore what is happening around me and I don’t have the mind chatter distracting me or other thoughts coming and going. I breathe in…I breathe out…. I wait for the right moment….focus…push the shutter button part way down…. and then I push the shutter button the rest of the way down. Things happening around me and even my thoughts don’t interfere as I focus on the moment. What my lens sees becomes the focus of my meditation, illustrated by the end result of the photo below.

In photography, being present, taking your time, focusing, and concentrating on what is on the other end of the lens creates better photos. Photography is about taking time to see what is happening, not getting upset when you miss a perfect shot or moment — because everything is impermanent. Photography is about embracing the moment and practicing, just like you do when you meditate.