Turn a Lens Toward Your Life

How snapping photos mindfully can hlp you find focus.
By Anne Ford

Remember the last time you came home after a long trip? When you walked in the door, the things you see every day—your couch, your bookshelves, your cat—may have looked a little different to you. For a split second, you may have seen them as they really are, not as your brain habitually interprets and judges them. In Buddhism, such clarity is called beginner’s mind—a mind uncluttered by what one thinks one knows.

If you long to keep that insight in your day-to-day life, a little-known mindfulness practice, a form of contemplative photography called miksang (Tibetan for “good eye”), may help. Miksang practitioners capture on camera ordinary sights—from leaves to street signs—that make them feel like they are seeing the world anew, without the filter of memory and habit. Unlike most art photography, miksang doesn’t explicitly strive to create pretty pictures (though many miksang shots are breathtaking just the same). Instead, it focuses on what our conscious mind tends to glaze over—even if it’s a crumpled gum wrapper.

Miksang stems from the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and the dharma art of Chogyam Trungpa, which emphasize present-moment awareness through meditation and contemplative practice. “When I first saw [Trungpa’s] photographs in 1979,” recalls Michael Wood, who created the first miksang course in 1983, “I was stunned. At that moment I felt like my whole career was going to change.” In 1984, Wood was joined by fellow Shambala devotee and photographer, John McQuade, to refine what Wood calls the merging of steady mind, soft heart, and clear vision.

But don’t worry if you’re neither a Buddhist nor a photographer. Anyone interested in being more present can enjoy what miksang has to offer. And if you long for a mindfulness practice but dislike formal meditation, give up the cushion and pick up a camera. “Some people can’t sit and meditate even for 20 minutes,” says Toronto miksang teacher Maxine Sidran. “But when you’re out shooting miksang, you’re on a mini meditation retreat. Something catches your eye, and in that moment, the mind stops thinking. Every second your mind isn’t chattering away, it gets a little bit of a rest. It’s healing.”

Over time, miksang’s effects can spill into the rest of your life, says Danielle Mirabella Hougard, a yoga instructor and intuitive wellness coach in San Rafael, California, who has been practicing miksang for four years. Initially she found it very difficult: “I could feel my judgmental self going, ‘I’m not doing this right.’ There was a lot of struggle in the mind.” But with practice, she says, “You stop the critical mind. Your breath slows down. Your body relaxes. It puts you in kind of a zone. It’s very pleasurable.”

Several mindfulness studies back up her stress-reduction claims. Practices such as miksang can help ease not only stress, anxiety, and depression, they can also lower blood pressure, calm headaches, and reduce chronic pain. In a 2007 study, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia even found that following a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped patients with type-2 diabetes achieve normal blood sugar levels.

Miriam Hall, who teaches miksang at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, can attest to the practice’s stress-reducing potential. “One day I was going to class, and I was getting really wound up about my finances,” she says. “I could feel my blood pressure rising. And then I saw this totally gorgeous flower that seemed to pop out of nowhere. My mind just stopped.” Without her miksang practice, she says, “I wouldn’t have even noticed that flower because I would have been so wrapped up in my head. These moments break through my ordinary daily fog and allow clarity to cut in. The afternoon light in the bathroom sink, or a leaf cutting through the snow—really simple, small things, but I can notice them now because of the practice.”

With only about a dozen instructors worldwide, miksang still hovers on the margin of mainstream photography. But nascent miksang practitioners need not feel deterred: Several Buddhist centers, particularly those in larger cities, periodically offer miksang workshops. If you can’t get to one, be, as the Buddha said, “a light onto yourself.” Try the tips below and develop your own “good eye.”

Anne Ford is a Chicago writer whose specialties include religion and health.

Capture the Moment
Want to use your camera as a meditation tool, but can’t figure out how? The following tips should get you started.

Begin on empty. If you use a digital camera, start with an empty memory card and a fully charged battery. You don’t want a technical meltdown to sabotage your mindful state. And turn off the flash to avoid washed-out shots.

Notice. Don’t go out with what miksang teacher, Maxine Sidran, calls the “bagging big game” attitude—the intention of taking an impressive photo. This is a mindfulness practice, not a National Geographic shoot. Do not look for anything—just notice what stands out for you.

Fill your lens. Fill your entire lens with whatever you’re photographing. You’re trying to convey the pattern or color (“fire-engine red”), not the object (“a red fire engine”).

Don’t pose. Resist the temptation to pose your shots. By the same token, don’t crop or delete photos during your miksang shoot. Your goal is to notice, not edit.

Don’t overthink. If a photo isn’t working out after a couple tries, walk away. It may help to repeat the phrase “first thought, best thought” silently to yourself.
—Anne Ford

Training the Mind’s Eye
For photos and upcoming workshops by Michael Wood, check out www.miksang.com; to see John McQuade’s work, visit the Miksang Society for Contemplative Photography (www.miksang.org). Shambhala meditation centers in several major cities, including Chicago, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Boulder, Colorado, periodically offer miksang training as well—visit www.shambhala.org/centers to find the one nearest you. Photography experience isn’t usually required, and fees can range from about $50 to $550, depending on the teacher and length of the workshop.
—Elizabeth Marglin