Adventures in Seeing – Taking a Pause

9 habits for living a contemplative life

9 Contemplative Habits

This summer I’m offering a 6-week version of my original Adventures in Seeing workshop, which focuses on cultivating the nine contemplative habits to your right.

It will be more photography-based and a way for you to experience your summer in a brand new way. I’m calling it a summer camp because it will be fun and help you to engage more fully with whatever your summer holds – even on your vacations.

The nine habits will be split into three main areas – taking a pause, focusing our attention, and making the connection. We’ll spend two weeks on each.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be writing about each of the three main areas, beginning with taking a pause.
Let’s face it – taking a pause seems so ________________.

Fill in the blank with the word that first comes to mind. Was one of these your word?

* impossible
* wasteful
* scary
* unnecessary
* boring

Our culture does not reward taking pauses; it rewards busy-ness and productivity. Yet, pauses are an essential part of creating a work of art, a business idea or a life.

Pauses enhance productivity.

The space in our photographs or the space between the notes in a piece of music are an essential part of the whole but often go unnoticed or are under-valued.

Meditation teacher, Tara Brach, speaks of the sacred pause.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience? Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life. ~ Tara Brach, The Sacred Pause

Brach recommends taking a pause in any situation, even in conversation. Notice what is happening in your body, heart and mind. Be with it and take your hands off the controls. See the situation as it is with mindfulness and compassion before deciding how to respond.

A pause is a place of opening – a moment to take stock, look deeper, see what’s really happening, welcome it and be open to possibilities.

TakeAWalkWe can take intentional pauses (meditation, yoga, a walk), situational pauses (breathe before reacting), and photographic pauses (why this subject).

If you don’t already have an intentional practice of pausing, could you add one, at least for the next two weeks?

It could be as simple as finding 5 minutes each day to sit in silence and stillness. Focus on your breath. Notice thoughts that come into your consciousness and let them go. That’s all.

If you have a practice of pausing, try to open even further. Where do you need to take more pauses?

For example, if you have a co-worker or relative that pushes your buttons, practice pausing in response to them. Don’t react. Just listen. Try to look at the situation through their eyes and then respond accordingly.

We need to aspire to something very small, to be willing to pause before we react, to be with our experience, to wait and see what arises.” ~ Tracy Cochran, The Mind is Its Own Place

In photography, practice pausing before clicking the shutter. What is your subject? What should and shouldn’t be in the frame?
Further Reading: 10 Lessons from Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance

Learn more about Adventures in Seeing Summer Camp – starts Monday, July 7th.

Read More

The Subway

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about visual journaling with your own images. But, what if someone else journaled or wrote something about one of your images?

My good friend, Norah Oulahen, is a painter and a poet. A few years ago, we collaborated on a project called “Exploring Edges.” I gave her images that included edges, and she wrote a poem based on the image. It was a fun and creative process.

We are planning more of these types of collaborations and, occasionally I will share a piece with you.

Recently, Norah shared some writing she did while on the subway. I paired it with three images of mine (see below). I think she captures beautifully the experience of being in that moment.

“I sit pondering the subway buzz and the white noise I hear from the ear phones around me. A plug. A whimper. In this small space I see line and shape moving toward me. I sit so close to the man beside me that I feel his jacket lock my button. It is not awkward. I realize it is familiar to city crush, people in process, strangers on the move. Suddenly, light shines and the dark tunnel pulls the train forward as if “through darkness we will find an answer.” Each person dresses for a different season, some winter, some summer and other spring hopes. The blank thoughts seem to move in circles in the train. Looks lift, pause and drift again. I breath deeper. I sense everyone is part of my breath, I echo their pain, their stress. I know I breath. That much I know for sure. And they do. Other things are a mystery. I feel a tightness and a release. I don’t want to be anything, especially original, just me in transit. I love this moment. I hold my breath and wiggle in my seat. The man next to me moves and we smile. I know words are not needed in this social experience. We hear one another in motion.” ~ Norah Oulahen

Have you collaborated like this too?

Norah Oulahen – The Poet in Me
Our Project – Exploring Edges
Brenda Gottsabend and Lisa Ahn Collaboration – Wing-Feather Fables

Read More

Photography, a Practice of Direct Mindfulness


Why live a contemplative life?

Because we get to spend more time actively experiencing our lives. We find out that there’s a whole lot going on all around us, and that we’re a part of it all.

As I sit at my computer writing this, my screen door is open to a warm, beautiful day. My dog is sleeping on the cool hardwood floor. I can see and hear a slight breeze rustling the trees in back. I also hear hammering, as there are two major building projects going on around the corner, as well as birds singing.

My sitting at the computer is not separate from all that. It’s one part. My presence helps me to see and appreciate it all.

A couple of articles (and a podcast) got me thinking about this.

One was a conversation between Parabola Magazine editor, Tracy Cochran, and meditation teacher, Gina Sharpe, called The Beautiful Mind. Cochran says,

I registered that transformations in the heart and mind (in Buddhism the two are not separate) are not a matter of progressing from point to point. They have to do with stopping, with daring to be still and attentive in the present moment. I began to understand how moments of being present can grow by dedicated practice into moments of presence — moments of realizing that who we are in reality is not an isolated individual on an isolated journey but a being who is an inextricable part of a greater whole. And I learned that the more we are able to open to the present moment, the less we are able to rule out, to judge as unspiritual or unbeautiful.

The other was by photographer and teacher, Kat Sloma. In Beneath Perception, she writes of her daily walk in the forest.

There is something for me in the forest I can’t explain. There is a communication that lies beneath perception. It is an acceptance of all that I am, almost an absolving of all that I am not. There is no judgement in the forest. It is there whether I am or not, but it welcomes me as part of it, part of a greater system, for a brief time every morning.

And, finally, Ellen Langer, a social psychologist from Harvard, spoke with Krista Tippett (On Being) on mindlessness and the value of direct mindfulness in this podcast.

She has been researching and writing about mindlessness and mindfulness for over 35 years and has found that “mindlessness is pervasive” – mindlessness in the sense that we are not present much of the time. We live in our own thoughts of the past or future.

Direct mindfulness is when you actively notice new things that puts you in the present; makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.

Langer knows, through her research, that the mind is powerful. The way we perceive things determines our lives. She believes in the psychology of possibility.

My interest, for as long as I can remember, is in what can be, and in learning what subtle changes might make that happen. My research has shown how using a different word, offering a small choice, or making a subtle change in the physical environment can improve our health and well- being. Small changes can make large differences, so we should open ourselves to the impossible and embrace a psychology of possibility.


To me, contemplative photography is a practice of direct mindfulness.

If you’d like to practice this type of noticing with the help of your camera, please join me this summer for Adventures in Seeing – 6 weeks of learning to see your life in new ways. It will be engaging and enlivening.

Read More

The Secret Garden

Secret Garden
Last week, I took a path not travelled before. It was narrow, heavily treed, a little muddy and I didn’t know how far it went or where it came out.

About ten minutes in, I came across a secret garden. It was gorgeous, magical, and completely unexpected.

I spent ten minutes or so soaking in the beauty and attempting to photograph what I’d found.

It occurred to me that this garden wasn’t there by accident. Most likely the people in the home that backs onto this public woodland planted the wildflowers. I gave them my silent thanks.

I’m sure you can guess that this story can be a metaphor for life.

I could have easily come across a boogeyman along the path. But, if a possible boogeyman had scared me away, I would have never found the garden. My daughter gives me that same message all the time.

What does this say to you?

Read More

Visual Journaling: a Tool for Self-Discovery

I’ve never been a consistent journaler – probably have 15 just started journals at my house, which I usually end up filling with notes or quotes from books I’m reading.

The truth is, writing is not comfortable for me. Even though I write two blogs posts and a newsletter every week, writing is often a struggle.

Hence – visual journaling.

I firmly believe that what we are drawn to in photography reflects our inner world. So, if we spend some time contemplating our favourite photos (ours or others), they will reveal something about us.

Last spring, as I explored my new hometown I found myself drawn to vines on walls and blossoms at my feet. Both had meaning for me, as I was returning to the area of my birth (my mother’s maiden name was Vine), making new connections, and re-visiting old ones. I felt very lucky to be in this beautiful place.

Last week, I was talking about contemplative photography with a group of women who were new to the idea.

After getting into an open and present state of mind, we went out for a contemplative photo walk. The purpose was to notice what we were drawn to and photograph that – not to worry about what would make a “good” picture.

I found myself very clearly drawn to “ties that bind.”
All of these images were taken within a half hour time frame. Very rarely does a specific theme appear so clearly, so I definitely paid attention to it.

In reflecting on the common theme of “ties that bind” I came up with the following:

* The strong ties/connections (friendships and family) that I have that are very important to me and are being redefined.
* Sometimes I feel tied down due to lack of transportation and dog responsibilities.
* Strength is found at the connection points.
* Ties provide some protection from external forces.

I took one of the images, printed it out, and wrote out my thoughts on what it said to me.

Visual journalling can be a powerful tool for self-discovery.

Images for Visual Journalling

* Yours or someone else’s
* Favorites over the course of a period of time
* A theme or pattern that’s been emerging in your photography, i.e. subject, topic, colour, perspective, genre

Print out an image or group of images on plain paper (with room to write on).

Questions to Ask

* What words come to mind as you look at the image(s)?
* Name the qualities that are present in the image(s), i.e. softness, dramatic contrast, simplicity, monochromatic, etc.
* Do the images tell a story? Does the story reflect something going on in your own life?
* Is there a message for you in the images(s)?

Other Resources

Patricia Turner’s wonderful “Field Guide for the Contemplative Photographer” is available as a free download from my site. In it, she quotes John O’Donohue as saying, “The outer landscape becomes a metaphor for the unknown inner landscape.” Turner offers practices in the field for visual listening, sketching, and journalling. Download it here.

Eyes of the Heart:  Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice by Christine Valters Paintner. This is a wonderful book, particularly if you come from a Christian perspective (although valuable even if you’re not). It speaks of photography as an encounter with sacred presence and offers a reflective practice called “visio divina” or sacred seeing with the heart. Christine sees art as “a process of healing and transformation.”

Susannah Conway offers online courses on Journalling and Photography as Meditation (enrolling now). I’ve taken both and highly recommend them.

Read More

The Journey

This was the view on my walk one day last week, after heavy rain and fog. It was stunningly beautiful and I thought, a wonderful metaphor for appreciating the journey, even when the path seems uphill and the destination is not clear.

Sometimes, when we’re too focused on the difficulties or an uncertain future, we miss the good stuff that’s right there in front of us.

Read More