“In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” — John Muir
Interacting with nature and engaging with photography can be an effective strategy for improving one’s life by simply stepping outside with your camera. This column is illustrated with award-winning images from Nature's Best Photography Awards photo contests along with text and videos on the practice of mindfulness. Learn more about Dr. Freligh and his journey below.
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, Ph.D.
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.
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.
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
The Primary and Secondary Objects of Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can help us step out of our constantly wandering minds and step into the experience of being alive right now. The concept sounds simple, but it can transform daily living when deliberately put into practice, bringing about the “aha!” feeling of noticing that your whole life is happening in this very instant.
The art of nature photography is an expression of mindfulness in action. This relationship is not only apparent via a photographer patiently capturing the essence of nature in the field, but also through the appreciation of an image that can stop the wandering mind in its tracks. Wildlife photography presents opportunities to experience the living moment, rather than simply think about it.
There are several types of meditation practice—one being “focused attention,” or the practice of concentrating as much as possible on one specific phenomenon for an extended period. The breath is often utilized as an object for this type of meditation. In this case, the breath is the primary object, and the secondary object is anything else in your experience that is not the breath (most likely the wandering mind).
At first, this can be difficult, and you may find yourself spending more time with your wandering thoughts than on your breathing. As a photographer, you may want to fix your attention solely on nature as your primary object. With practice, you can sharpen your sensitivity to notice when the mind has strayed and enhance your ability to re-engage fully with your surroundings.
Put most simply, in focused attention meditation, one’s task is to not allow the secondary object (e.g., the wandering mind) to become the primary, as illustrated here:
By participating more fully in the present, you create a new lens to look through that is less colored by your worries and biases. As Michael Bury explains in his essay below, full attention applied to nature as a primary object can allow for a pure experience of living in the right now.
Stillness in turmoil | By Michel Bury
“OVER THE PAST YEARS, I’ve spent countless hours observing and photographing the black-crowned night heron and the great blue heron fishing in rapids. I’ve made shots of the birds in action, but I prefer using a slow shutter speed at dusk to capture a lone heron standing motionless, surrounded by the blur of flowing waters. I love those images not only for their aesthetics but also for the feeling of calmness they emanate —a stillness amidst life’s turmoil.
After having practiced meditation for many years, I realize that I use a similarly focused attention when I am photographing wildlife. The idea is to concentrate on the subject and only on the subject. I try to keep any inner turmoil at bay: those constant thoughts try to claim my attention, but staying intent on the subject keeps those distractions in the background.
There are many decisions to be made while making wildlife pictures. One needs to carefully choose the best background for the subject, be prepared for changes in lighting, make the proper adjustments in aperture while your subject is moving, take care to keep the right exposure, and other concerns. After the many technical aspects have been mastered, one may concentrate more easily on the subject.
I prefer to be alone when on a photo expedition to be able to hold my focus and not miss any change in my subject. That solitary experience of communion with nature is what I aim to convey in my images. In this state, the separation between ‘me’ and ‘nature’ created by my constant thinking disappears. What’s left is a feeling of oneness with my surroundings, which brings me serenity. That’s when my best images happen.
Spending time observing the herons has allowed me to learn a great deal about their behavior. I admire their ability to stand entirely still for long periods patiently waiting for fish to get close enough to catch. In no hurry, they remain totally on task. But the most precious lesson they’ve taught me is to live in the here and now. I believe this is an ability we humans, not only photographers, would benefit from if we chose to practice it a bit more.” — Michel Bury of Montreal, Québec, Canada
Doing & Being
Life consists of two basic modes of experience: doing and being. The doing mode is habitual and reactive; it’s like living on autopilot, relying on conditioned behavioral responses to serve our needs. Alternatively, the being mode is flexible, open, and immersed in the present moment. Daily experience in modern society can become consumed with doing to the point of near extinction of being, particularly with the growing integration of technology and digital access in our lives. For example, our phones are always just an arm’s length away to fill any gap in time that may have otherwise allowed for a moment of simply being.
DOING MODE: The doing mode is goal-driven; operating on the basis of how things are vs. how we want them to be and quickly determining how to fix that “problem.”
An effective use of this mode deals with external problems: “I am thirsty. So, I pick up a glass, fill it with water, and drink it. Therefore, I am no longer thirsty. Problem solved.”
BEING MODE: In the being mode, however, there is no standard of how things should be and therefore no need to fix any “problem.” Instead, the focus is on accepting the current situation without having to immediately change it, which allows one to slow down and experience the moment.
Life, especially as we age and develop deep-rooted habits, can become characterized by an endless sequence of stimulus and reaction (doing). The practice of mindfulness offers a way to nurture the ability to experience a stimulus, become aware of what is happening physically, cognitively, and emotionally in the present, and allow for space (being) before ultimately responding to that stimulus with intention.
Two Photographers | A short Zen-inspired story
“Do” and “Be” are good friends who sometimes spend their Saturdays together hiking and taking photographs in woods nearby. Do is constantly pursuing the perfect shot and believes she has to be vigilant and exert her will in order to capture it. Be often seems as though she has forgotten they are even taking photos, becoming seemingly lost in the dynamic display of sensations that nature provides.
Do has a problem to solve (“get the right shot in just the right way”), while Be is experiencing the richness of her surroundings (“get out of the way and allow the shot to occur”).
One morning, the pair came upon a beautiful scene of ducks bathing. While Do was focused on capturing the ducks in just the right way, Be became fascinated by a single feather floating on the water’s surface. They spent the next hours snapping images.
On their walk back home, Do asked Be, “Did you get the shot?” Be smiled subtly and responded with a shrug, “No.”
These two people are outwardly having the same experience on the surface — in the same environment engaging in the same activity — but the quality of their experiences differs greatly. It is possible that an enhanced capacity to be may be the main ingredient in fully tasting life and finding contentment in the relief from always having to do — always having to make things different than they are.
“The ground for action is to be, and the quality of being determines the quality of doing.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein
“Emptying the Cup” | A Zen Story
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
A university professor visited a Zen teacher to learn about Zen. The teacher served tea while the professor spoke excitedly about theories of philosophy. When the professor’s cup was full, the Zen teacher kept on pouring as tea spilled over onto the table and floor.
“The cup is overflowing!” said the professor.
“Like this cup,” said the teacher, “you are full of your own opinions, speculations, and expectations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The "Emptying the Cup" concept relates to the human tendency to develop particular ways of perceiving that become increasingly rigid and constricted. The practice of regularly “emptying your cup” and returning to see the world through fresh eyes, as if for the first time (“beginner’s mind”), allows for the beauty of life, and nature, to reveal itself to fill your cup again and again.
Experiencing Nature Beyond the Limits of Language
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” — Dorothea Lange
This Zen concept of experiencing nature relates to the use of language to describe an experience. The word “mountain” conveys a reality which is completely beyond the written or spoken symbol; it describes the experience of witnessing the massive thing the word “mountain” represents. While words are useful and allow us to communicate with each other, we may fall into the trap of mistaking the words or symbols for the living reality they describe.
The problem is that we easily miss out on the actual experience of living in the present that is happening right now and only right now; it’s the difference between seeing a “tree” just like the thousands of other “trees” you’ve seen before—just like your mental image of a “tree”—versus pausing and becoming curious about the thing we call a “tree” but is really a totally unique experience in the present. One may mistake the reality of what is seen, heard, felt, or tasted, for the words used to name those experiences.
For example, observe this photo of Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park. Classifying what you see as a “mountain” limits the fullness and the novelty of your experience as it exists at this very moment. We may experiment with taking in the landscape without limiting what is seen by adding any descriptive words.
The Closed and Open Hand
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Søren Kierkegaard
Are they moments that are planned or things you have forced into existence? Are they things you work toward and finally achieve, if only you would worry about them enough? My guess is that none of these are true, but that you might still find yourself using these strategies to achieve happiness, to reach contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment, connection, relief, or whatever you might call your ultimate goal—that thing we all are grasping for.
We learn early in life that in order to get things, we have to grasp for them—like grasping for a glass of water to satisfy thirst. But the ultimate thing we’re all after is so elusive; it seems the more we try to grab and hold on, the more it will actually slip through our fingers. It’s a frustrating paradox, and may lead to a lot of the pain we experience, whether it be anxiety, sadness, anger, or just general dissatisfaction—the feeling that something at our core is missing. So, what can we do?
Here’s a visual that illustrates how we may actually “get” that elusive thing.
If you would, take one of your hands and make it into a really tight fist (you could also just do this in your mind if you prefer, but it might make the point more decisively if you would play along).
Tighten your fist for five seconds, and slowly open up into a completely outstretched hand with your fingers spread out as wide as you can. Now tighten into a closed fist again for a few moments, and then release into a completely open hand.
In which of these positions is your hand able to receive anything? No matter what the world may be offering, the closed fist is unable to take in anything. The hand can only receive when it is wide open, waiting, exposed, vulnerable.
There’s a saying: “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.” You might imagine the ways in which you live like the clenched fist, fighting against the world, exerting yourself in order to achieve. Then reflect on how this might actually block your ability to receive the gifts that are available to you at any given moment if you could be open to them fully.
The pages of Nature’s Best Photography magazine offer a chance to practice this receptiveness and to hopefully extend your ability to be receptive to the gifts of the natural world all around you.
Charles Freligh began a personal mindfulness practice in 2010 while earning his Master’s from New York University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. He has since cultivated a career focus dedicated to articulating the practice and benefits of mindfulness and meditation from a secular perspective through his years of experience working therapeutically with individuals and groups. His work is rooted in the healing impact of presence. In Charles Freligh's new book, "The Will to Do Nothing: An Expression of the Heart," now available on Amazon, you will connect to the natural current of now, before doing anything. Explore a way of living that is internally at peace. Visit his website for a thought-provoking blog and learn about his one-on-one therapy sessions at: charlesfreligh.com