Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Just breathe

The irony is not lost on me.

I am a communicator by trade. I spent years in corporate communication roles before striking out as a freelancer in 2000. My days are filled writing content intended to spur readers to think or do something in a particular way.

I don't know whether it's because of my background or in spite of it, but the most meaningful experience I've had in a long time is a recently completed workshop in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

In 27 hours, over nine weeks, I learned a new kind of communication: engaging with my inner self as I focus on paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. Those concepts -- paying attention, present moment, without judgment -- come hard to a hardened communicator.

My work involves frequent interviews, during which time I split my attention between listening and deciding which follow-on questions are necessary to draw out the information needed for whatever I'm writing. I have to make quick judgments about whether or not I've gotten the right level of detail, so I don't waste the interviewee's time or my own. I also work on deadline, so my mind is always racing into the future. The tension is to complete Steps A, B, C, and D so I can deliver final copy by a certain date.

All those productivity skills I pride myself on have led to an active mind that makes it hard for me to relax and, sometimes, to fall asleep. I've become a "human doing" instead of a human being. So when the MBSR program came to my yoga studio, led by someone deeply committed to his own mindfulness practice in both meditation and movement, I was among the first to sign up.

Most of what we did was to sit. And breathe. Yes, I know. We all sit. And we all breathe. But few of us pay attention, on purpose, to our breathing in the present moment. And that seemingly small change isn't so small after all. It makes a huge difference in the ability to focus the mind when it wanders, as mine does again and again and again.

I've been breathing my whole life, but I've done so on autopilot. Now, post-workshop, I'm paying attention. I'm taking time each day for mindful meditation, using the breath to find focus. I walk away from each session with a greater sense of peace and well-being. At night, I use mindfulness techniques to help me fall asleep. And the mind-body connection is evident, with lower blood pressure readings being a welcome outcome.

There's not much to it. Just sit. And breathe. But I find this simple practice to be both deeply satisfying and always available, allowing me to communicate better, with more clarity. And to be truly present for whatever arises in my life.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

When negatives prove valuable

This story begins with a picture taken decades ago and ends this week, following a funeral, a mystery, and a mix of technologies. 

I was attending the funeral for a beloved aunt. While paying respects to the family, I glimpsed a photograph that looked familiar. It was taken in my parent’s home. By me. More than 30 years ago.

In the photo, my aunt and uncle were sitting together, looking happy and peaceful. But who was the woman at the end of the couch? This was one of the few photos of my aunt and uncle together at that time -- he died not too long after -- I was determined to find out what I could about the third party.

To unravel the mystery of an early 1980s color print, I snapped a picture of the framed photo with my smartphone and emailed it to several family members. A cousin confirmed it was taken at her bridal shower, and the unknown woman was from her father’s family.

I shared this information with the grieving family, glad to put a date, occasion, and name to the photo. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I had taken the shot, so surely I must have more photos somewhere from that day.

I visited my photo archive, also known as the top shelf of a rarely used bedroom closet. I combed through boxes of photos, but couldn’t find anything. I flipped through pages of slides; still, no success.

Finally, I dragged down an overstuffed binder of negative sleeves and contact prints. Depending how young you are, that previous sentence probably made no sense. Let’s just say I went through my old photography paraphernalia and found exactly what I was looking for.

So now what? I really wanted my cousins to have a nice picture of their parents, just the two of them, without the unrelated woman crowding in. I pulled the negative and handed it to my husband, who's more tech savvy. I thought he could erase the third person from the couch through some software wizardry, but I’ve been watching too much CSI on TV.

He took an old-fashioned approach using much newer technology. Basically, he scanned the negative into PhotoShop, adjusted color and contrast, cropped in close on my aunt and uncle, and then saved it as a .JPG. I emailed the new version to family members and, if they wanted, they could get an actual print to replace the old framed one by sending it to anyone from Walgreens to Shutterfly to Mpix. 

Only later did I reflect on the technologies involved in bringing new life to an old photo, taken with a 35mm SLR camera. Again, depending on your age, you may not know the camera reference, but you could always look it up on your smartphone.

I had been tempted once or twice to throw away all my old negatives. I couldn’t imagine ever printing them again. Now I know they’re a valuable resource and a tether to my past. As for printing, well that has taken on new meaning when you can email images and have prints ready for pickup or arrive in the mail.

Once again I find new technology never really replaces old technology. Drawing on the strengths of each, you get the best of both worlds. In this case, a positive negative.