Going into Monk Mode: Supercharging Yourself as a Photographer

Productivity can be really tricky for photographers, but here’s how to make it easy

I’m sure that if you were to talk to some of the masters of photography they’d tell you about a zen feeling or what we like to call a Monk Mode. This Monk Mode is what we’d like to associate with an ultimate sense of clarity–unparalleled focus that allows you to go about shooting and creating totally undistracted and with full intent. You go on a mission in the same way that a Monk’s mission is often to seek enlightenment by shedding belongings and being solitary. For photographers, we can surely harness this sort of energy for our own uses.

Indeed, the very first time I heard about this was when I discovered Eric Kim and read one of his posts about being in the zone. Later on, as I got more into the psychology of running a business, I read about the different levels of focus and concentration. I also got into traditional Japanese martial arts: their philosophical roots have given me a bigger picture about these states of concentration. Meditation is not just laying down, closing your eyes and letting go. It can be exercising, cleaning, reading and of course taking pictures.

Our good friend Thomas Ludwig explains the practice of meditation for photographers (street photographers in particular) very well in his e-book Keep The Focus. He has very good advice on how to get into meditation. His meditation comes with shooting and is a sense of being at a higher place when shooting–the brain juices really get going.

Personally, I have no problems getting in the zone when photographing. Be it portraits, food or other work that I’m producing–once we say GO I’m in the zone. What I struggle with is when I’m home editing. I have the mind of a dog and it wanders so easily that I need to find a practice or ritual to keep the focus. I call this going into Monk Mode. I block everything out around me–no phone, no websites, no emails, just Photoshop, Thrash Metal and me.

Editor in Chief Chris Gampat has been practicing meditation for the better part of 15 years and has studied various things: cherry picking what’s worked for him. He’s at the point where he can take a break for three minutes, force things out of his mind as a matter of knowing that it is imperative, and then return to work with the ability to power through lots of tasks. As of today’s writing this (February 5th) he’s been able to do this in order to schedule our website up into the beginning of April. If you’re a person who works in the editorial world, you’ll know that’s near impossible with a small team and with an online publication.

Meditate

I don’t meditate, at least not in the traditional way that we’ve all come to know and think about. My dog mind wanders off to random shit pretty quick. So staying still, in silence, with my eyes closed and focusing on the breathing doesn’t work for me no matter what your Apple watch might say. However, as I mentioned before, I found other ways to meditate and keep the mind still through the study and practice of martial arts. We start training by kneeling, meditating for a minute and then keeping that state of meditation throughout training, I learned that if I do something similar when I need to I can easily enter that state of deep focus without my mind wandering off. That’s how I enter Monk Mode.

Music has a very powerful effect on the mind so it helps to have something playing in the background. It doesn’t need to be deep and meaningful stuff like chants or chamber music, Thrash and Death work for me while Jazz or R&B might for someone else.

For the photographers saying, “This won’t work,” consider listening to Moby’s Album Long Ambients. He designed it specifically for meditation and sleep and it’s free. Of any of the albums that I’ve tried to listen while meditating, this is one of the few that works.

What also works is finding a way to put yourself into a trance: this is what medicine men and shamans have been doing for ages with ritual dances and such. They put their body into a trance-like state. Engage your mind by also thinking about things around you changing. Let it wander throughout the world that you’re in and push everything else away. Put your phone on ‘do not disturb’. Put it far away from you–in another room if you need to. Disconnect from the world and let nothing bother you. Sometimes, meditation also works when concentrating and thinking about your elements. Chris, by personality is fire, but by birth is air.

Visualization is another way to enter a meditative state. Try all of the above and focus on a project you’re about to work with. Visualize the finished shot and see the process in your mind. This has helped me overcome creative difficulties.

Push everything else aside. It can wait

The Monk Mode ritual starts by leaving my phone in the bedroom on silent and airplane mode. I don’t want anything or anyone to disturb me. Then I get a cup of coffee or tea, I play my Thrash or 80s synth playlist. I close my eyes and take three deep breaths while I focus on the process of editing pictures. Part of the routine involves having my hood on but this is just for a dramatic effect: it feels more monk-like.  Once I enter this state, nothing gets in the way of the project I’m working on.

No, seriously. Everything else can wait. Chris takes this even further: Monday is dedicated specifically to editing and creating content for the website. Sending him an email? It can wait. The way he sees it, you can have your question answered immediately or all his readers can have the great content that they get: pick one, because you can’t have both. Tuesdays and Thursdays are just for email, calls and business meetings. Wednesday is video production and on Friday he produces content and manages the premium publication: La Noir Image.

In fact, I’ve copied Chris’ practice from the beginning of this year to run my business and the difference in time management and productivity is huge! You should seriously try building a strict routine like the editor does if you want your business to be more productive. It won’t guarantee you more gigs booked but it will make you understand what to do to book more.

Focus

Photo without that light

Focus is the out of body experience that racing drivers describe while driving to the limit. Also, it’s that “energy” musicians describe while the whole band is playing in perfect sync. The same can be achieved by staying focused while doing photography or any sort of creative work.

Once I’m in the zone it’s easy to keep the focus, so if I’m in Photoshop editing work, there’s no way out until I’m done. You can train your mind to keep this level of focus. Even if there’s a distraction, through meditation you can learn to ignore it.

Sometimes whispering a mantra to yourself works–this is what old school Salem Witches and shamans used to do when they meditated because it engages another part of their brain. For extra effect, do it in another language. Chris uses French to engage two different sections of his brain. I tend to use ninja terminology in Japanese because that’s the way I learned to get into that state.

Have a Goal in Mind

I find that meditation is useless without a purpose. We meditate for a reason; so don’t try to meditate just for the sake of peace and quiet, go to a library or a church for that. Even for writing, I find Monk Mode is useful but a bit more difficult to stay in that state of concentration since I have to get back to books and websites for reference, and the temptation of getting distracted is greater. Once the goal is achieved, go back to normality to maintain balance.

This piece was written in collaboration with Editor in Chief Chris Gampat.