My buddy shared a video on nature photography yesterday and said it reminded him of me and Buster and my picture taking. I loved the post and the video as this has been my experience, too.
It’s a video about techniques but it’ll start halfway through where the photographer talks about his story and why he shoots woodland photos and further why his dog is fundamental to his photography. Hint: it involves chronic pain ;)
It made me think about my own experiences and what helped, what were my successful forms of therapy, and of a question I get all the time…
What did you do to change your pain?
I get asked this question a lot and it’s an impossible one to answer. I did many things, there was no one thing that changed my pain or my life. It was a lot of small things added up over time. Some I’m sure made little difference, others I’m sure made an even bigger difference than I realize.
They include things like meditation, hanging with Buster (pets can be amazing therapy), nature walks, volunteering, snowboarding, spending time with my loving and supportive husband, hiking, reading novels, pain science education, running, camping, road trips, writing, coloring, yoga, cooking, cross-country skiing, weightlifting, travel, being fully present and aware, and socializing with family and friends.
(Here’s a pic from last week of a Super SIM for me – being with my husband and dog on a trail surrounding by fall color…)
Nothing ground-breaking, nothing new, nothing specific. Just movement, mindfulness, creativity, socializing. Just things that have morphed and changed over the years as my interests, beliefs, thoughts, and expectations changed. The one thing that has been consistent, though, is that they are all things I enjoyed or wanted to learn and that were meaningful to me.
I’ve written about them all over the years, in fact almost exactly two years ago I wrote about how nature played a role in changing my pain experience. And it absolutely did for all the reasons I listed in that post, one of which was nature photography. I only briefly hit upon my photography in that post, though, and it’s one of those things that I think helped me much more than I realize, so I wanted to expand on it a bit.
Withdrawal from the world
When my pain was at it’s worst I withdrew from the world. From people, places, experiences, outside. I didn’t venture out much and then only to the backyard (my cherished oasis at that time!).
It was unusual for me because I’ve always been a nature lover who lived for being outside. I’ve been camping since I was in diapers and have always found myself at home on the trail. I seek trails out wherever I go and have found them in unlikely places. One of my favorites was behind a tire shop when I needed to kill an hour – it was around a lovely pond that was full of wildlife, birds and turtles and fish. It was lovely, an oasis behind an industrial park.
But with pain came isolation. I stayed home, my world shrinking, my pain becoming immense and unmanageable. And all the while I had thoughts that I needed to get my pain fixed first in order to re-engage with the wider world. I needed it to be gone, or at least manageable, and I spent all my energies on trying to control it, trying to tame it. Fighting it, resisting it.
All the while life was passing me by. The world didn’t wait on me while I waited on my pain to be gone, it kept turning.
At some point in time I decided to get back out into that ever-turning world. I started taking longer walks around the neighborhood, eventually I started seeking out trails again.
But I was always distracted by pain, obsessed with it. Pain was all I would think about, both directly and indirectly. I didn’t just focus on where it hurt – although that took up the majority of my focus and attention – but would also think about my movement and if I was moving ‘wrong’ and making it worse.
Hypervigilance was my normal state. Systems on edge. It was hard to see anything beyond that fog of pain. So even though I was outside, I was wholly inside my little pain world.
But then I started taking pictures, just with my phone, and something changed.
I don’t remember know why I started taking pictures, but it made such a huge difference. I was literally seeing the world through a different lens. Instead of focusing on pain 100% of the time, I started paying attention to minute details and searching for interesting subjects, which for me tends to just be landscapes (or lakescapes).
I’ve always been drawn to nature and now I suddenly wanted to be able to capture it and share it with others. I wanted them to see these beautiful things I was seeing, without really knowing why ( I still don’t know why I’m compelled to share them but I am – you can check out my gallery on Instagram if you like nature pics, too!).
We were in the suburbs when I first started taking pics, and I would take pictures of blooming flowers, snails, eucalyptus bark. I would go to our local trails around a manmade lake and take coastal desert pics or go down to the beach and take pictures of the ocean.
It got me out of the house. Out of my pain spaces and pain routines. Out of my head and my suffering.
Taking pictures of nature helped me to subtly but significantly shift my perspective. When we came to Colorado, the shift was seismic.
I took thousands of pictures of the beauty I was surrounded by. I was awed by the immensity of the mountains, the gentleness of the rolling hills, the distant horizons, the creeks and rivers and alpine lakes, the lodgepole pines and aspens, the elk and moose, the raptors and songbirds, the colors and climate, the sounds and silence.
It made me feel small, being surrounded by the grandeur of mother nature. It touched me deeply, profoundly. I realized that in the grand scheme of things, I wasn’t all that significant. That my suffering wasn’t all that significant, my pain not all that significant.
That might sound awful but it wasn’t, it was freeing.
Seeing the world, and myself, differently
As I would stand on a ridgeline or a peak or in a meadow, I could see and feel how big the world was. It would feel like I was in my own universe, with huge expanses before me that I couldn’t fully explore in a lifetime, and yet it was just a small corner of the world, a small speck in the universe.
The world is a massive place, the universe even more so, and we are but a part of it all. That’s freaking awesome. Standing on the earth, in the world, in the universe, and feeling the immensity and life around me, as well as the minuteness and the death and the decay, it gave me a perspective I could never read in a book, never learn through studying pain science.
There is a lot of suffering and pain in the world. There is death, illness, decay. Loss, grief, anger, sadness, discontent, violence, inhospitality. I am merely a part of it. There is also a lot of beauty, mystery and magic in the world. Love, joy, compassion, hope, friendliness, contentedness, hospitality, laughter. I am a part of that as well.
I came to understand that I could acknowledge the pain and suffering without succumbing to it. And I could actively seek out the beauty and magic alongside it. And I could capture some of that beauty and magic. I could take it home with me, I could share it with others. That’s so cool, isn’t it?
All of it exists together, both within the world and within us. Darkness and light, suffering and compassion, pain and joy, anger and love, discontent and peace.
Denying any of it means denying all of it.
I no longer wanted to deny all of it, as I had when I had withdrawn from the world. From relationships and people, from treasured experiences and places, from adventure and fun. In trying to deny, avoid and resist my pain, my suffering, in trying to wish it were otherwise and fighting to go back, I’d stopped living, waiting for the day the pain would be gone.
Light was extinguished not because it wasn’t there, it was always still there, but because I had only focused on the dark, on the pain, on the suffering.
Nature photography helped me see the light again. It helped me reconnect with the world, to see with new eyes, to experience with new thoughts, to feel with a whole spectrum of emotions.
The pain was still there, but I also experienced awe and joy and childlike glee. I grinned like a fool at the ridiculous, impossible beauty of it all and felt grateful beyond measure to get to experience it. The good and the bad, the light and the dark. All of it. It’s all of it that makes a life.
Nature photography as therapy
Taking pictures of nature became something of a therapy for me. As I mentioned earlier, I have always loved being outside, being immersed in nature. It has always been home for me. And coming back to it I felt that deep, emotional connection to my surroundings again. I felt calm, at peace, happy. Particularly out on a mountain trail in the forest with a creek or a river or an alpine lake nearby.
Sitting on a giant rock next to water under a canopy of trees is my favorite place to be. (Here’s a pic of a recent snack stop…)
To get to those giant snack rocks I have to hike, move my body, be active. I scramble over rocks, walk on uneven terrain, traverse logs spanning creeks and rivers, splash through puddles and slog through mud. And to take pics along the way, I squat, climb, or lie on my belly to capture the image just right.
Nature photography is great exercise in every way imaginable, physical and mental (though I hate phrasing it that way as that dichotomy doesn’t exist – we do not have a physical body and a mental mind – it’s all inextricably connected, all the time). As I’m moving and navigating the terrain I’m also searching for interesting details, natural framing, light and color, composition.
I only use my phone so these things are really important or else the picture will be no good – I can’t zoom, I have no shutter speeds and all those other photography terms I don’t understand because I haven’t had a real camera since I was a kid. I know nothing about the technical aspects of photography, yet I can still go out and do it. It’s accessible to anyone with a camera phone.
I see the world, really see it. I am focused on something other than myself, other than my pain. And I create images of the things that capture my imagination, my heart, my thoughts, my feelings. All of that matters. Movement (don’t overthink it!), learning new things, being creative, getting outside – these things all engage our brains and bodies in ways that are beneficial for us – not just for pain, for life.
I want that for everyone
It doesn’t have to be nature photography, it can be anything you love to do or that you want to learn to do, that gets you out of your head and into the zone. Anything that lets you create and think differently and see with new eyes.
What are you emotionally connected to? Passionate about? What interests you most in the world? Do those things! What do you want to create? Or learn to do? What makes you grin like a fool or giggle like a child? Do those things! (Learning new things is not just good for pain, either, it helps us age better too!)
Pain can come along for the ride (Bronnie has written a great post that touches upon this), you don’t have to wait for it be gone to do so. You may be surprised to find that taking pain along with you isn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be, and that it might actually get better. Over time pain may change not just while you’re engaged in your beloved activity, but throughout your days and throughout your life.
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Life? Living? The world isn’t going to wait for us and we don’t live forever, so let’s live while we can.
A moose and fall color – amazing, right?
Thanks for this Keith PT!