Guest post: On the contemplative joys of hobbies

Sometimes when we suffer, our minds detach from the present. This is not a path that we choose to follow, but one on to which we stumble, our vision clouded by suffering. Perhaps we are overcome by anxiety, worrying ourselves sick about what might be, or perhaps we are tired and fed up, wishing we were somewhere else.

This can last for a considerable time—days, weeks, even years—during which our experience may linger at some distance from our immediate surroundings. As the distance grows between our inner world and the outer present, our perceptions may lose meaning and significance. We may feel disconnected and alone. Things may no longer seem real. Suffering may become the all-consuming force in our minds. It is important, then, to consider activities that can help to ground us in the present moment once again, to reconnect our experience to the world around us.

It strikes me that hobbies are dying out somewhat in the modern world, as they are gradually replaced by surfing the internet, passing the time on social media or watching videos of cats that resemble dictators. This is a terrible shame! There’s a lot to be said for the contemplative nature of many hobbies. For example, completing an Airfix model demands focus, a resistance to distraction, planning, time specifically set aside for the task, not to mention preparation (have you got your white spirit and an old rag to hand?) and patience. That said, I can barely remember the last time I built a model. I think it might have been a model of the Millennium Falcon that was about the size of a cake, at the age of twelve or thirteen or thereabouts. The great thing about hobbies is that you can vary them up a bit as and when you fancy it, so you never know, I might end up with my desk covered in solvent-based cement again one day.

Crucially, hobbies demand focus and attentiveness at times our minds may otherwise wander. To illustrate this, I’d like to tell you about my experiences with photography. I shoot on a little toy film camera that uses a twin-lens reflex system. This means that there are two lenses, one which focuses light onto the film, and one which focusses light via a mirror onto a matte screen, the viewfinder, on the top of the camera, creating an image with which you can compose your photograph. You hold the camera at waist height and look down onto the viewfinder to see what you’re shooting. There are no controls other than the focus and the shutter release (the bit you click to take the photo) and as such most of the time spent using it is about finding and framing an interesting subject. A little preparation is required, as you need to choose the right film; the speed of the film should be appropriate to the light. I mostly like to shoot 400 film as it’s quite flexible, producing good results whether it’s sunny or cloudy, but there are lots of different types to try. To use the camera you open the back, load in the film and wind it on a touch, close the camera, wind the film on a bit further until it’s ready for its first exposure, find an interesting subject, focus the lens, carefully hold the camera still, push the shutter release and then wind the film on again ready for the next exposure.

It’s a simple process but one that requires your full attention and a measured pace. If you don’t hold the camera absolutely still as you push the shutter release, your image will blur. If your lens is not focussed, the image will blur. If you do not advance the film correctly, the images will overlap, and if you forget to advance entirely then you will produce a double exposure (although sometimes you can use this for a fun creative effect). If you neglect to assess the light correctly, you may not choose the right film. But, most importantly of all, if you are not absolutely attentive to your surroundings, you will miss opportunities for photographs. The key to capturing interesting images with this toy camera is to get your mind firmly into the world around you. That bluebell looks gorgeous, crisp sunlight washing over it through a break in the trees, its surroundings lit dimly so as to throw it into sharp relief. Hold the camera steady and take deep, slow, measured breaths. Compose your shot with the viewfinder, make sure nettles wrap around the bluebell rather than obscure it. Ease your thumb onto the shutter release and gently push down, triggering the exposure. Now wind the film on, before you forget.

There are so many lovely things about this process. For one, it has a very clear beginning, middle and end, on two satisfying levels, that lend it a purposeful structure. On taking an individual photograph I find a subject, compose the shot, then expose the film and wind on. In using a roll of film, I prepare my camera and pick a location, find interesting subjects to photograph, and then hand in the film to my local lab to develop for prints. This is grounding in a few ways. The most prominent is a necessary appreciation of my immediate surroundings, not just in terms of what’s around me, but in terms of how it is lit and in terms of its context. The blossom looks so beautiful, but it’s windy so I need to take my time and wait for the right moment of calm before I release the shutter or my image will blur. It’s a gloomy day but if I use the right film I’ll get some pleasantly atmospheric exposures in the soft light. Once I have the prints from the lab, I can spend a while writing the date and the location on the back and selecting my favourites to add to an album. The result is a carefully considered collection of photographs of people and places that mean something to me and an ability to appreciate and recall the moments that created them in a way that I might not if I’d simply been walking around with no focus to my intention.

Of course, it goes without saying that not every trip out needs to be like this, there is no need for a hobby to be all-encompassing and perhaps a great deal of need for it not to be. It’s perfectly fine to wander aimlessly on cool afternoon and to feel the chill of the breeze on the back of the neck. But in those times when I get caught up on that distant path, a hobby that demands both feet firmly in the present can be very helpful. There’s a lot to be said for hobbies!

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All photos by author