Photography, Mental Health, and Spirituality

Before I created my own blog, this was a guest post on my friend’s WordPress blog: Her blog deals with similar questions of mental health and spirituality.

Image“Anxiety” © Sarah E Fleming Photography 2013

I’ve struggled for years with anxiety and panic. Without even noticing the build-up, I can get to places where I literally forget to breathe for seconds at a time. I lose myself, and my thoughts don’t have time to complete themselves. The world is a hostile place at these times.

For me, mental health and spirituality are absolutely intertwined. For the first few months of my panic attacks, the only thing that could make the world an okay place again was Xanax. However, I was lucky enough to be taken in by a college chaplain who introduced me to Zen meditation. Meditation changed the possibilities that life held for me. Over time, I’ve learned to be patient with myself, with others, and with the world; to rest in the ambiguity of the moment and see it for what it is; to learn that it’s not bad after all. I’ve found stability and faith that I hadn’t believed possible.

I have long been attracted to photography because it does what meditation does: it breaks down the overwhelming chaos into little moments of clarity. After a difficult few months in which meditation seemed more difficult than usual, I got myself a DSLR camera and threw myself into photography. I’m inspired by the work of Matthieu Ricard, a well-known Tibetan monk who uses photography as a supplement to his meditation practice. In a well-known quote, Henri-Cartier Bresson describes this connection: “Matthieu’s camera and his spiritual life are one, and from this spring these images, fleeting and eternal.”

I’d like to share the results of my experiment with photography as a spiritual practice. You can view the photos I post on this blog, or visit my website at I have a long way to go, but I’m now considering pursuing photography as a career after finishing college (in addition to ministry/spiritual leadership!). I’ve experimented with several genres of photography. I especially like capturing authentic emotion through portraits and little poignant snapshots of time through street photography. I also have a collection of travel photographs from my trip to Dharamsala, India this past summer.

Image“Tsundu” © Sarah E Fleming Photography 2013

Daily Prompt Response: Happiness

Daily Prompt Response: Happiness

This is a response to today’s Daily Prompt: what does “happiness” look like to you? I call this photo “Transcendence” – it’s probably my favorite photo that I’ve ever taken. It’s an image of the area underneath a dirty bridge … Continue reading

Fresh New Year’s Snow

Fresh New Year’s Snow

This is my response to this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning. Winter storm Hercules wound down this afternoon as I’m wrapping up my last week on break at my parent’s place in Massachusetts. I noticed the beautiful shadows and shapes … Continue reading

Forgiveness For Wanderers (a sermon I wrote and read at my hometown UU church)



What does it mean to start over? In today’s competitive world, we are given few chances at new beginnings. In a cumulative GPA system, a brief first-year struggle with chemistry leaves scars that remain on a senior history major’s transcript. Few people dare to change careers late in life, afraid of the blank slate that is their résumé in a new field. Not only are our political, economic, and social frameworks unforgiving of missteps; many of us are bound by memories of when we have felt insufficient, guilty, incapable of meeting the demands that are placed on us. Many of us feel that we, as individuals, are unworthy of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew.


The theme of forgiveness plays a major role in Christian theology. I have had countless conversations with my roommate about God’s grace and the powerful meaning that is has in her life. Christ’s ultimate sacrifice was enough for all people to be forgiven for their mistakes, whether they feel worthy of this forgiveness or not. This brings up an intensely personal question that, for me, is fraught with feelings of self-doubt and guilt: Can forgive myself and grant myself the freedom to begin again? Furthermore, do I even have the right to deny myself this chance?


At my college meditation group, I take my seat on the cushion each Monday and Thursday with the intention of keeping still for thirty minutes and listening to my breath. Inevitably, though, my mind wanders. I am caught by reminders of work that waits for me outside the chapel door, tangled emotions surrounding relationships, and painful memories that I’d rather not face, not in this moment when I am supposed to be at peace with myself. In this moment, what do I do with these thoughts? I can (and do) dismiss myself as bad at meditation, add on to the pile of guilt that makes me unworthy, inadequate, less than who I wish I was.


Ultimately, though, I have learned to forgive myself. I have found that my wandering mind is not a sign of weakness, but that it provides insight into my deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. With each breath, I come to know the present moment, and I forgive it for all its imperfections, the ways in which it is not what I had hoped it would be. And with each breath, I forgive myself for not being who I wish I was.


I spent this past fall break on a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. After surviving the grind of midterm exams by envisioning the beautiful lakes of the Upper Peninsula, our first five-mile hike turned out to be a sodden trek through fog, hail, and rain with a high of forty degrees Fahrenheit. We struggled to boil water, shivered violently through the night, and ultimately decided to turn around and hike back to the van in the morning. We were exhausted, defeated by our expectations of ourselves as “backpackers” that we could not live up to. As one of the trip leaders put it, we had lost a significant number of hardcore points. We had negative hardcore points.


It was during the return hike that I took this picture of the Lake of the Clouds (above). There is no indication of our frustration and self-judgment; the camera captured a simple moment in which hikers framed a view of purple mountains and steel-grey water. This is the beauty of photography for me: the camera preserves just one moment, exactly as it is, with no judgmental thoughts attached. It is we who later go through our picture library, picking and choosing the photos we like best and using Photoshop to remove blemishes.


What if we could embrace the entirety of our surroundings and ourselves, just as we are right now, with total clarity and acceptance? This does not mean totally forgetting our mistakes and living as though we have neither past nor future. Rather, I would argue that we need to deeply investigate our feelings of guilt in order to truly forgive ourselves and learn something from the process. With practice, we may learn to start over at each moment, with each breath, with deep love for ourselves and the world.