I have been told fairly frequently that I’m a great photographer, but I’m not, I’ve just practiced seeing. (Specifically, as a photographer, to see the beauty in everything.) Think about great photographs you’ve seen, what is it about them that captures your attention? I’m willing to bet it isn’t that they are properly exposed, that the white balance is on point, or any other technical detail. You probably like them because the artist who took the shot saw something worth sharing and managed to capture it on film.
Photography is first and foremost about seeing and this is why I teach it as a spiritual practice.
As I’ve written before, spiritual practices are those regular, intentional actions that help us grow and mature into a specific sort of human. The practice of seeing is just such a practice. Now you might say, I’ve been able to see since I was a baby, what’s to learn? And my response would be, show me right this minute one thing around you that is beautiful. If you are reading this on your phone on the subway, or sitting in your office you might have a hard time with that one.
But if you had practiced enough, you’d have no problem at all.
Mr. Roger’s famously offered his mother’s advice for time’s of crisis. She told him that when things are at their darkest, to look for the helpers. She had to tell him to look for the helpers because most of us aren’t trained to see. We aren’t mindful or intentional in most areas of our lives. If you have trained yourself to see the beauty in everything you will look at the same office or subway in an entirely different way then when you hadn’t had that practice.
Intention & Practice
Again, it all comes back to mindfulness and intention. Most of us spend most of our lives on auto pilot, we worry about the things we’ve done, and we fret about what is coming. In the process the present moment simply vanishes. Before we know it the day is gone, or the week, or the year. Time flies, whether you are having fun or not.
Mindfulness practices, like seeing beauty, are not about erasing ugliness, violence, or horror. If we cannot see the evil and suffering in our own lives we cannot see the beauty either. Practicing the beauty in everything is not a way of avoiding the bad, but of training ourselves to look for the good or beautiful right now in the present moment.
Sometimes that moment will be mundane (a lot of the time most likely). Most of the time it will look like a daily required dog walk. Sometimes it will be sunny and beautiful, sometimes it will be hot and miserable, sometimes it will be raining and cold and yet the dogs must still be walked. On that walk we have a few choices, we can ignore the dogs and numb by staring at our phones trying to tune out, we can let our mood be dictated by the circumstances, or we can search for beauty.
I spent a month this year taking a picture of something beautiful everyday and posting it to the online community I moderate. There were days when the flowers were blooming and the dogs were adorable and our walk was pleasant that I came home with a camera roll full of photos. And there were days when the rain came down in buckets and the dogs had to whine and complain.
New Eyes: Seeing Intentionally
I have been a photographer for years, it is my favorite creative outlet. One of the reasons I love it so much is the way that using a camera changes the way you look at the world. When you take photographs regularly you begin to see the ‘frame.’ You see the was the camera sees (which is very different than the natural human eye.) And this is intentional training.
During my recent month of intentional picture taking there was a day where I was down right grumpy. It was cold and wet, I’d had a rough ride on my horse, the dogs had interrupted my writing all day, and now we were slogging up a 30 degree incline in the rain with another mile and a half left to go. And then I tripped (see incline & rain.) And just as a rather colorful string of expletives left my mouth, and I was ready to write the whole day off as a bad idea I saw it.
There on the ground right under my nearly smashed nose was a perfect square of moss. Someone’s old mailbox post (long since rotted away) had left a perfectly square hole in the sidewalk and an enterprising colony of moss had turned that square into a electric green pillow of brilliance. It glistened like a jewel, covered with raindrops. I stared at it.
Often the beauty we need is right under our noses. But we must practice if we want to see it.
No Magic Wand
There is no magic wand that will make you a good photographer, or good at meditating, there is only practice. Humans want immediate satisfaction, we want quick easy solutions and a lot of people make a lot of money selling us that promise. But it rarely pans out.
I cannot give you a prayer that will carry you through hard times, or magically make your struggle easier. But I have seen time and again how those who practice meditation and prayer on a regular basis navigate difficulty differently than the rest of us. Practice changes us, whether we are practicing sit ups to change ourselves physically, or meditation to change us spiritually, or seeing to change us mentally.
There are no shortcuts. But that’s good news, because it means that mystics aren’t born, we are made. Photographers aren’t magiced up, they are created.
Practice Makes… Different
The saying is: practice makes perfect, but humans are not perfect and never will be. Practice won’t make you perfect, it will change you. So try this. Choose a practice you wish to take on, for the purposes of this article let’s say you want to become more aware of the beauty in the world all around you, want to see beauty and be able to share it with others.
Grab a camera, any camera will do. An old polaroid, a big fancy DSLR, or your phone. The camera here isn’t what matters but do what will be fun for you. (I love using my DSLR but find I just don’t carry it with me everywhere so I highly suggest using your phone camera.) Now set yourself a goal, if you have never taken on a regular spiritual practice before start small.
But make it a commitment. I like a 30 day commitment. It is long enough to create real change, but short enough to not be totally overwhelming. Perhaps you will take (and share) a photo of something beautiful every day for 30 days.
Help from your friends
I like to make sure these sorts of practice include sharing because sharing involves accountability. So let your friends (or followers on social media) know what you are doing, and make a promise that you will share that photo every day.
It might seem like a small thing but knowing there is at least one person out there waiting to see what you do every day (even if that person is your Mom) can help keep your commitment in the forefront of your mind.
Freedom to Fail
Now here’s the key. For a practice to really stick, and really change us, we must be free to fail.
Does that sound counterintuitive? We live in a culture terrified of failure, but failure is how we learn. Most of us have made some sort of resolution in the past, and most of us have “failed” within the first few weeks. And a lot of that can be attributed to two things: starting too big, and not including freedom to fail in our resolution.
When you are free to fail then you can’t. Sure, you might forget to take a picture and share it one day, but that isn’t the end of the world. Don’t start over. When you fail, just pick back up where you left off and keep going. So if you take pictures three days in a row and then forget on Thursday then Friday becomes day four. It might take you two months to get your 30 days of pictures, but you are much more likely to finish and even to keep at it, if failure is just part of the process.
You don’t fail at meditation if you have a thought while meditating! (If that were true no one would meditate). You only fail if when you have that thought you give up and quite mediating. In meditation when a thought enters your mind you notice it, and let it go and return again to stillness. You might do that ten thousand times in one meditation session. And every time you do it, you get better at letting go.
So keep going. When you (inevitably) fail work those “start again” muscles and go back to the practice of looking for beauty. The more times you realize you’ve forgotten and return to your practice the better you will get at it, because you will become better at noticing when you aren’t looking. And that, after all is the point of learning to see the beauty in everything.
So when you miss a day (or 2 or 3) instead of feeling guilt, congratulate yourself on noticing the missed chance and start back in.
When you reach the end of your challenge (however long that takes you) spend some time reflecting on your experience. Reflection is one of the most important parts of learning and growth but it almost always gets left out. We’re impatient, and action oriented. So spending time just thinking about things tends to not be a popular step in learning, but it is essential.
Take some time (a journal can be helpful, or a soul friend) thinking about your experience. What was hardest about this new practice, what came naturally? What changes can you see in yourself at the end of this intense time of practice. (I find myself seeing great shots all the time now, even when I have no way to capture the picture. And that’s OK, seeing is enough.)
Finally, think about the future. How do you want to take this practice into the rest of your life? Anytime you incorporate a new skill or practice you have an opportunity to shift your priorities, time, and energy. This is the root of mindfulness, to choose rather than cruise on auto pilot.
So. Are you ready to see the beauty in everything?