On mindfulness photography, and how it positively impacts your mental health
There is no substitute for the present moment.
During the darkest days of my depression, photography was the sole activity that brought me any relief.
It helped me concentrate on something other than the maelstrom of thoughts swirling around in my head. The fog would lift, if only for a minute or two.
Most will argue that anyone who engages in activities they enjoy will feel better.
But anxiety and depression know how to suck the life out of your hobbies and interests too.
How had photography resisted the all-enveloping gloom of mental health disorder and become such an important part of my life?
Mindfulness is a state of awareness in the present moment that is attentive and non-judgemental.
In a mindful state, we face the bare facts of our existence.
The facts may be that we are tired, stressed or depressed. But we don’t make judgements on those facts.
We simply accept them for what they are.
Acceptance means, among other things, that we stop trying to change things we can’t control.
This saves us a lot of time and energy. And in the long run, it saves our sanity.
Seeing mindfully is an investment of emotion and all of the senses.
It is how you produce unique, beautiful and meaningful photography. And it’s also great for mental health.
Here are but five benefits of mindfulness photography to your mental health.
It motivates you to get outside and take photos
We generate fears while we sit. We overcome them by action.
Dr. Henry Link
When we feel depressed or anxious, it is easy to stay in bed all day and ignore the outside world.
Negative thoughts swirl around in our heads like black clouds — only these clouds hardly ever clear to a sunny day.
Engaged in a perpetual loop of negativity, we cheat ourselves out of so much.
We miss out on the beautiful garden outside our window.
We miss out on the forest five minutes down the road where we know we’ll find relief and enjoy our photography.
If we just, got, out, of bed.
Mindfulness is crucial to motivation. In a mindful state, we observe our thought-storm for what it is and detach from it.
It does not have to elicit an emotional response from our body. We might even begin to make room for positive thoughts.
Glumly sitting in front of the television, we may find the room to notice the dappled light being cast by the curtain across the wall.
We might even decide that we want to get the camera out and see what we can make of it.
Seemingly out of thin air, we find 20 different compositions in our living room alone.
And before we know it, we are out in that garden or down at that forest, camera in hand.
The depressed mind assumes that the world is a scary place, bereft of beauty or meaning.
Mindfulness gives you the motivation to challenge those assumptions.
It helps you get into a flow state
I’ve gone seventy-nine hours without sleep, creating. When that flow is going, it’s almost like a high. You don’t want it to stop. You don’t want to go to sleep for fear of missing something.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first introduced flow state psychology to the West.
In the East, it has existed for thousands of years. Buddhism, Taoism and even ancient Sanskrit — a language thought to predate writing itself — mention the concept.
I like to think of flow state as an elevated form of mindfulness.
In the flow state, there is no ego or judgement. There is no fixation on negative thoughts or a need to be somewhere else.
It is a state of total immersion in any activity that brings you joy.
Total immersion means that hours often pass in what feels like minutes.
Recently, I was photographing the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
I was traversing a barren set of hills covered in Triodia (spinifex), interspersed with white cypress-pine (Callitris glaucophylla).
Given the hilly terrain and reddish soil, the setting sun cast dynamic shadows across the landscape and gave the hills a wonderful, brown-orange hue.
Kangaroos danced across the hilltops, their silhouettes disappearing over crests as eagles circled above in search of food.
As cliché at it may sound, I felt at one with the landscape.
I felt as intimately connected to the landscape as an organism that evolved to live in that landscape. I felt a state of euphoria, where I was not conscious of time or space.
The best comparison I can make to flow state is being on a very peaceful roller coaster. Roller coasters are far from peaceful of course, but they subject us to immense forces that push and pull us in different directions.
During that particular evening, these forces conspired to pull and push me toward many compositions.
Photographs seemed to come easier to me, but not so easy that I became bored for lack of a challenge.
Nevertheless, I instinctively knew where to walk, and why.
Hours passed by in minutes. It was quite a hot day, but I did not want the sun to set. I was having too much fun.
There is no seat at the flow state table for depression and anxiety. There simply isn’t enough room for them to coexist with the non-judgemental and focused state that mindfulness brings.
It helps you communicate your worldview with others
Photography, painting or poetry — those are just extensions of me, how I perceive things; they are my way of communicating.
Depression and anxiety are not exactly illnesses that facilitate discussion. When I was feeling really low, I often became withdrawn, sullen and simply non-communicative.
I chose to escape into the wilderness, the only place I believed I could breathe.
As a result, a lot of my work communicates feelings of isolation, confusion and the struggle for survival.
On a good day, they might communicate rejuvenation, freedom and serenity.
While most good photographs tell a story, it doesn’t have to be a happy story.
Mindfulness photography helps us gain insight into our feelings.
There are two ways you can go with this.
The first is to mindfully accept that you are depressed and make photographs that are an extension of that depression. You might unwittingly discover a clarity and coherence in your work that wasn’t there before.
Better still, you might become comfortable sitting with negative thoughts. Thoughts that you’ve traditionally tried to numb in the past.
The second is to make a conscious decision to look for the beauty of the world.
You achieve this by becoming mindful of your surroundings and appreciating the inherent majesty of all things.
Each is a useful form of communication that results in meaningful work and each, dare I say, relieves anxiety and depression.
You begin to gain clarity on what you want to say with your photography and why you want to say it. The beginnings of a true photographic voice start to emerge.
It helps us cultivate gratitude
In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
The benefits of incorporating gratitude as a regular practice are well documented.
Gratitude strengthens mental health by increasing levels of happiness, optimism, alertness and pleasure.
It also increases physical well-being by establishing better habits and encouraging people to get out more.
Mindfulness is an effective way to cultivate gratitude, since we cannot be grateful for things that we don’t notice.
Through mindful observation of our surroundings, we gravitate toward things that we are grateful for.
Gratitude is appreciation. What can you appreciate about shape, form, colour or light? What can you appreciate about the camera in your hand? Or the area that you live in?
Gratitude helps us appreciate the things we’ve never noticed before.
The old house on the side of a highway we’ve driven one thousand times over.
The pine plantation which, for so many years, we wrote off as photographically barren.
We delight in finding beauty in unexpected places. We delight in simply being alive, and for that, we are thankful.
Taken one step further, mindfulness and gratitude reinforce each other in a self-sustaining loop.
When we mindfully notice the small butterfly on a leaf, we are thankful for its presence.
In being thankful for the butterfly, we then discover the intricate and delicate pattern of venation on the leaf and are thankful for that in turn.
It gives us purpose
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.
While other psychologists of his time concentrated on what constituted poor mental health, Abraham Maslow was interested in the opposite.
He believed that the path to sound mental health was through humanistic psychology, of which there are four basic principles:
- An emphasis on living in the present moment.
- Taking responsibility for one’s actions, positive or negative.
- Believing ourselves to be inherently worthy, simply for existing.
- Happiness is derived from self-awareness and personal growth.
Since a mindful photographer is also a self-aware photographer, we can use humanistic psychology to our advantage.
Maslow posited that purpose, or self-actualisation as he called it, was one of the pinnacles of human existence.
And every human being, he argued, had a strong desire to live out their purpose.
To understand how people attained self-actualisation, he interviewed a bunch of people and asked them.
In a 1962 revision of his famous hierarchy of needs, he equated self-actualisation with having peak experiences.
Peak experience is similar to flow state; in that both are profound moments of joy and wonder where time and space are warped.
But while Czikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow state describes the experience itself, Maslow was more interested in flow state as a means of self-expression and making a valuable contribution to the world.
In his twilight years, Maslow refined his hierarchy and made some interesting remarks.
Far from a linear system of progression from bottom to top, he noted that some people neglected more basic needs to become self-actualised (we might call this making sacrifices).
The budding artist who values creative fulfilment over an abundance of food and reliable shelter. The photographer who values self-esteem and accomplishment over intimate friendships.
Our purpose is something that we must strive for every day, and we need a healthy dose of self-awareness to figure out exactly what that is.
We also need to mindfully live in the present moment. Purpose is not a goal to be attained and checked off a list. It is a way of being.
Mindfulness photography is not just a means of quieting an overactive mind. It has far more profound and wide-reaching benefits.
Initially, it may be the push that we need to get outside, exercise and change our environment. This is how to we tend to our mental gardens and begin to align ourselves with the person we want to become.
For the mentally ill, photography also helps to break down communication barriers. Photography provides an outlet for sometimes disturbing thoughts and crucially, gives the photographer a safe place to express their voice.
At some point, we hopefully engage in photography on a regular basis and make further insights into what motivates us. We experience moments of utter bliss in the flow state and cultivate gratitude when times aren’t so great.
Mindfulness and self-awareness can help find our place in the world. Because as creatives, our work is our purpose. We become satisfied that we are, in actuality, intentional and purposeful individuals with something to contribute.
We take back the reins of our life! And it all starts with self-awareness and acknowledgement of the present moment.