Ross McElwee is a documentary film maker originally from North Carolina, the state that is the top grower of tobacco in the U.S. In his 2003 film, Bright Leaves, he explores the industry, especially its impact on his family, who still live in the state. In one scene, he films an examination carried out by his brother, Tom, a physician, on one of his patients, a middle aged woman.

The dropping of her examination gown reveals an enormous black tumor that has replaced where the woman’s breast tissue used to be. It has been there, growing for a VERY long time. This is the first time she has gone to a physician about it. Tom asks her questions with a gentle professional tone that belies his obvious incredulity and alarm. His patient calmly answers the question while the audience feels the horror of, “Oh my God, she has REALLY bad cancer and she’s acting like she has a hangnail!”

After this horrific moment, McElwee zooms in onto just the tumor. No one being filmed is talking. And then he keeps the tumor in view for a very long time; it seemed like several minutes but it probably was not nearly that long.

The disgust and horror abated and I was able to look at the tumor, I mean REALLY look at it. By getting a close up view, it became an abstract and almost sculptural object. I looked at the color, the shape, and the texture. When the scene was over, I thought about it for a great while and obviously, I still think of it today. The horror I felt initially was real. And the tumor, up close, removed from its emotional associations, was also real. And then I integrated both of these experiences into my understanding of this woman, her physician, and her cancer.

There are upsetting aspects of life that keep us noticing our feelings about them. And we can get stuck on the fear. I know this very well being a naturally anxious person. It is easy for me to start fixing a problem that I assume is real because I feel anxious. The real problem may be that I have gotten myself overly stressed and that I need to slow down, think about something else, exercise, talk to someone, write, or something else that calms me.

I started my mindfulness practice two years ago to gain more balance and calm in my life. It has helped me enormously in this respect. I am learning to observe my life in small pieces but much more thoroughly. And in observing little pieces at a time, I find it much more tolerable. It is easier for me to move past the fear, anger, and sadness of the painful aspects of my life. It has helped me understand my experience of cancer, bit by bit, and has contributed dramatically to my emotional recovery.

Since mindfulness is an approach to experiencing life, it can be done at any or all times of the day. Mindfulness meditation is a more discrete practice. I did it several months as a resting meditation, twice per day, using a meditation timer. Then I noticed I was having the experience when walking, especially when I am in the woods, looking at flowers, or at the beach. Although I still do resting meditation, I more frequently do active meditation while on my walks.

When I first started meditating, I could see the benefit but frankly, I thought I was doing it wrong or cheating in some way because my brain was full of jumping monkeys. I was often thinking about other things, in rapid succession. My mind is typically active, but in the stress of cancer and for many months to come, it was kind of ridiculous. I knew that in mindfulness, I was just supposed to notice my distraction and this would typically redirect my thoughts. In other words, I wasn’t doing it “wrong”. Although I still had a little doubt in myself, it was relaxing to meditate and I was committed to my healthier life style so I persisted.
Over time, I have found that mindfulness has gently seeped into the rest of my life. It is not something that I have to schedule though it is a byproduct of other activities that I do on a regular basis such as see my psychologist or more frequently, writing this blog.

I find that mindfulness is more about “what to do” than “what not to do” To a person who has struggled with anxiety, guilt, and depression, I find this to be a very liberating approach. My main goal in practicing mindfulness was to reduce the distress in my life and build my emotional resilience.

It has done just that. It has also increased my experiences of joy, bliss, and contentment. In other words, mindfulness has not only helped me feel “less bad”, it has also helped me feel “more good.”

I have rediscovered myself as a physically active person. Most recently, I have rediscovered my visual talents. I typically think of myself as being very verbal, a talker, a person who thinks in words rather than images. And this is true. I will not deny this. If I were to do so, there would be a line up of friends and family who would remind me of my chatterbox ways.

But I am also a visual person. I excelled at mathematics. I used to be able to read music with a startling array of notes on the page, 32nd notes, 64th notes. I could play really really fast and I needed to be able to visually process that information as well as use the other parts of my brain, which translated the notes into motor movements as I touched the keys of my flute, supported my breath, made the quick changes to my facial muscles needed to produce different sounds.

Most importantly, I love visual arts. I have yet learned how to draw or paint but I am an artistic person. I am good with color. I am good at arranging physical spaces. I have an artistically decorated home and office. I love to make things with my hands. And as I’ve mentioned recently, I have recently resumed taking photos.

I take my camera with me on my walks. I used to take photos with my smartphone. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a “real” camera last April. Little did I realize when I bought that camera that I was adding another layer to my mindfulness practice.

My camera is not expensive but it is surprisingly good. In particular, the macro lens has allowed me to get up close to things and see them in a different way. I started taking photos of leaves and flowers up close. And then I got even closer.

When I get really close, the blooms become abstract and almost sculptural. It is like entering a new visual world. I am not an expert at either mindfulness or photography, but combining these practices has deepened my joy in life. I am noticing patterns, some interesting, some beautiful, everywhere. I am seeing the familiar in a different way.

Kurt Koffka long ago said, “The whole is other than the sum of its parts.” I believe this to be true. But I do find that in looking at parts, lots of them, bit by bit, by examining them in detail, I am not only seeing more of the whole but I am feeling more whole.



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