How to Use Photography to Cultivate Mindfulness

Kelly Woods, writer

30 June 2017

One of my daily rituals is gratitude photography. The practice has grown from a fledgling effort to record our days, to a mindful practice that has changed my life.

Many years ago, I read Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts, an invitation to let gratitude dictate your life. I loved the concept, and have noticed a growing gratitude movement reverberating through people’s lives ever since (at least if the the Internet is any indication).

For myself, I loved the idea of mindful gratitude, and set out to record my own “1000 gifts.” As a writer, who parleys with words, this seemed like an easy task. What I found, however, was that gratitude was sometimes a hard thing to record in words.  Sometimes I struggled to capture a beautiful moment in the written word. Sometimes I needed a different medium.

It is one thing to attempt to describe the heartbreakingly beautiful streak of sunshine on my bedroom wall. It is another to notice it, and capture it with my camera.

Sometimes you can’t capture a smile or gesture before it slips away. This is when words are useful. But other moments – a beautifully composed display, or the corner of a child’s ear, or some other random, lovely, thing – are best captured visually.

For me, the practice of gratitude photography means watching, observing and being present. I can’t be looking for beauty when I am focused inward, on my own troubles. Or staring incessantly at my computer screen. Or rushing through the grocery store.

I can’t tell you the joy that comes from discovering and capturing a random, unforeseen moment. The satisfaction that comes from having noticed a thing previously unseen.

The Victorian writer John Ruskin made a case that a person has never really experienced something until they have attempted to recreate it creatively. When you attempt to draw something, you really notice it. Every detail.

When Wordsworth composed his poems, he called them “spots of time.” They captured a moment, encapsulating it in his memory, allowing him to relive that moment, and “dance with the daffodils,” again, in the reliving.

Gratitude photography does this for me. It wakes me up to the present moment, and forces me to truly experience it. To notice the details. To revel in its beauty, and wonder in its perfection.

People often harp on photographers: particularly travellers and Instagram and selfie snappers. People are reprimanded for trying to capture every perfect moment, and told to simply live them.

But, I think it is easy to argue a different case; that photography, when used mindfully, can actually open up our eyes and souls, allowing us to experience each moment in a more full and complete way.

I don’t take photographs all day (if I did I’d probably be an obsessive bore – and some days I likely am). But, I do try to capture one or two beautiful, fleeting moments in each one. When I have done so, I feel complete. Everything around me looks more vivid. I notice tiny details. My soul fees satisfied and alert. I am a better, happier, and more alive person.

Tonight, as I prepared our evening meal, I felt blessed to have noticed the beautiful, soft light pouring through the window as my children rolled out the homemade pizza dough. I am glad I took the time to capture the moment, so that I could be present, and not just ploughing through the preparation of our family meal.

I smiled at my children, I thanked them for their help, and then I put down the camera.

And the light, thankful mood of wonder stayed with me.  It buoyed me up to write these words. And serve my family meal with thanks and grace, instead of weary obligation.

That, my friends, is the beauty of creative mindfulness. Tonight, when I record the graces of my day, I will be giving thanks for my camera.

I’d love to hear about your favourite gratitude practice, or your experiences with using photography in this way. Do you find your camera makes you more or less aware of those everyday moments? Please share in the comments.

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