Set yourself an assignment to deliberately photograph 10 things you are grateful for. Taking photographs is an act of mindfulness in itself. Photography is all about slowing down and deliberately observing our surroundings, which immediately roots us firmly in the present. Constructing or framing our picture deepens our focus on that moment, and then capturing the moment in time preserves our relationship to it forever. Obviously our relationship to the present moment is the actual foundation of Mindfulness!
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”. What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”? One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Eszter Matheson of That Book.
As Creator of That Book, Eszter transforms people’s personal stories into luxury heirloom art-objects, so they can be celebrated for generations to come. Great granddaughter of Hungary’s first female filmmaker, Eszter harnesses the skills of a filmmaker herself as she directs a team of award winning photographers, printers, and book designers to craft unique custom books using boundless imagination and the finest materials known to man. Combining her experience in an array of creative fields including exhibition and interior design, acting, and commercial photography, Eszter applies her visual storytelling skills to immortalizing the life stories of her clientele. Her recent book, Spider Lake, won Best Digitally Printed Book, and Book of the Year, at the British Book Design and Production Awards, and in 2020, THAT BOOK was included in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Gift Guide .
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
My parents are Hungarian refugees whose families abandoned all of their earthly possessions, social status and the luxury to dream big, when they immigrated to the cultural void that was 1950s Australia, in search of a safer life. Unable to reconcile the stories of my accomplished, exotic ancestors with the anxiety and loss I felt immersed in as a child, I spent most of my life torn between an intense need to express my creativity, and the belief that I had nothing extraordinary to offer. So despite finding success in an array of careers including Television, Interior and Exhibition Design and Commercial Photography I was always dissatisfied and restless — quick to lose interest — and haunted by the feeling that I had something else specific to offer whilst lacking the confidence or vision to seek it out. Witnessing my lack of fulfillment, some of my (amazing) friends suggested that my under-utilized creativity might be causing the imbalance that was so apparent in my life. Working in Commercial Photography at the time, illustrating brand stories, I knew I was visually creative but wanted to do something that was more meaningful; more an expression my soul’s purpose (at the risk of sounding too woo-woo) and the idea of That Book came to me in an inspired download one night, fully formed. People have an innate need to tell their stories, as well as a fascination for the stories of others. I thought if I could make art out of people’s lives, reflect the beauty of their lives back to them, then that would have to be a desirable product. I would be giving them the gift of gratitude for their lives — it just felt like a total win-win!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have 2 stories, very different to each other.
A couple of years ago we made a book for a family and in the period between making the pictures and completing the book, both of the grandparents who’d been part of the shoot, unexpectedly died. When my client received her book, she called from Milan to say that she and her son were looking through it and he was crying for the first time since her parents had passed away. She thanked me for creating this thing that instigated his healing process by helping him to access his emotions. I was over the moon, of course, because I was doing exactly what I knew I was supposed to be doing — something real and meaningful — effecting people’s lives! My client then commissioned us to design her parents’ memorial, an eccentric yet entirely appropriate Halloween themed event involving a giant fire-breathing dragon suspended over her parents’ pool and a haunted house, but that’s another story altogether. Suffice it to say, I knew it in my gut that I was on the right track!
And more recently I began a spiritual journey, which led me, amongst other beautiful places (both internal and actual) to a ceremony in the hills of Topanga. At this ceremony, an unlikely, tattoo-covered, ex-skate-mogul-turned-Shaman, infused me with tobacco smoke as he called in the elders, then administered the Psychoactive Medicine (5-MeO DMT) to dismantle the limiting belief system which had stood between me and my potential, for my whole life. So that was incredible! I cried and cried — for a week I woke up in tears like I was mourning a loss — and I meditated a little every day, until very soon I started to see the world through an entirely new lens. I started to see abundance everywhere. It was crazy! When I took my kids to the beach (one of the only available activities as we entered the Pandemic) and swam out past the people, I was awe-struck by the beauty of the sun sparkles hitting water, and the endlessly abundant ocean, and found myself constantly on the verge of overflowing with joyful tears. My old self would’ve been overwhelmed by anxiety about the pollution of the planet. The cycle of generational trauma in which I’d existed my whole life was dissolved. I practiced and was filled with the deepest gratitude, which turned into a joy like I had never known, and the strongest sense of confidence in this new person who was being revealed. Along with this newfound confidence came the knowledge that I owed it to myself, and my daughters, to excel. I was clear about what I must show them — that happiness is what you experience when you’re striving for your potential — and also clear that I wanted to leave a legacy, both for them, and all human kind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde. I actually don’t have any choice in the matter since I’m a terrible pretender, but it’s always nice to be reassured that you’re on the right track! And because it is so difficult for me to be someone I’m not, Ive spent a lot of my life in conflict between myself and the belief system I found myself imprisoned by. I now understand and embrace the concept that your mess is your message; that we are all messy humans; and that this isn’t a one size fits all experience. And the more I embrace this, the more everything slots beautifully into place like it’s part of a grand plan. When I enter into situations with authenticity, and the energy that I am enough, people offer me incredible things. Making my books is the most intrinsically ‘Me’ thing I have ever done. When I followed this call, which came from some non-cerebral, deeply instinctual place, the most extraordinary artists and bookbinders and publishers were drawn into my vortex, and my first edition won both Best Digitally Printed Book and Book of the Year at the British Book Design and Production Awards. In other words, I won one of top Book Design awards in Europe, with my first book, because I put one foot in front of the other to follow my inner voice, which I see as proof of another Rumi quote I love : ‘What you seek is seeking you’.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
So many books have made an impact on me — I am a passionate reader! But Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is one which immediately springs to mind. She writes so beautifully — with so much vulnerability and compassion — and brings new meaning to the phrase ‘your mess is your message!’ The tone of her writing feels like home to me — a beautiful, kind, clever voice, showing us what integrity looks like at the same time as giving us permission to accept ourselves as we are. Both humorous and painfully sad, she makes your flaws OK by so honestly laying bare her own.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am! I’m very excited to be in the early development stages of a TV show I’ve conceived. It’s based around the creation of my books, and the personal narratives of the fascinating characters we’ll photograph along the way. We will dig deep into their inner thoughts and emotions, and reveal their narratives, emphasizing the similarities we share as humans, so that we can ultimately become more connected through an extremely authentic reveal. People are made vulnerable when the lens of the camera is trained on them, and I intend to dive into the souls of our guests to understand their deepest fears, thoughts and desires — the narratives that are uniquely theirs. By watching others live their lives we learn about ourselves, discovering our own identity through the comparison. I am passionate about the importance of storytelling for alerting future generations to their true potential, something I was late in discovering, and I hope to shed light on some enlightening and important stories and spread connection and love.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband is that person. He has stuck by my side through thick and thin (and it has gotten really thin at times — I can tell you!!) He has always been my greatest cheer-leader and accepted me exactly as I am, sometimes to a fault — and also probably the wisest thing he could’ve done. He is loving, and forgiving and constant and brilliant and absolutely, my best friend. We live together and parent together and work together extremely well — to a weird degree actually — and It really wasn’t until I met him that I had any idea what happiness felt like. He urged me toward a career in design, recognizing long before I did that the visual arts are my clear strength. He does make me work particularly (irritatingly) hard to convince him of my whims and ideas, and sometimes I have to really put my foot down to get a concept by him, but once I do he is 100% on board and is always thrilled by my success. He is unselfish and adaptable and I am grateful to him for recognizing my potential, introducing me to joy and probably saving my life. I really see this time ahead as the part in the movie where I get to repay him for uplifting me, by fully actualizing, standing strong in my power, and bringing home the gifts that will be born of that to benefit our entire family in ways I never even dared imagine.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Gratitude is identifying the good things and experiences in our lives and being deliberate about feeling appreciation for them. Our emotional systems are quick to adapt to both the positive and negative. By focusing on the good things (practicing gratitude) we are able to magnify the positive feelings they elicit and develop our appreciation of their value. Participating in, and celebrating the good things blocks toxic emotions — it’s impossible to be grateful and envious at the same time, for instance — so the more grateful you are, the more joy you will feel.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
There are many reasons, including genetics and personality, that people don’t feel gratitude. We also live in a society where we are constantly advertised to and persuaded to want things, and aspire to having new things, rather than to appreciate what we already have. We live in a society where being content is almost frowned upon and regarded as not being driven enough. We are told all day every day that we don’t have enough — the opposite of feeling gratitude — and it gets into our heads!
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present and participate more actively in life. It makes us more generous towards others, attracting better people into friendships, which comes with more positive feedback, and makes us more confident in our selves and our thoughts. The more confident we are in ourselves the more fully we pursue our potential, and the more likely we are to achieve our dreams. From there its just a beautiful, self-perpetuating cycle.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
Gratitude slows us down to appreciate and celebrate the moment, making us more present and therefore less anxious about the future or the past. When we really pause to take in the abundance in our lives, and acknowledge that every moment is a gift, feelings of joy naturally follow. It is simply impossible to feel negative emotions while we are actively appreciating what we have. Gratitude is proven to reduce depression, anxiety and even the likelihood of substance abuse.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
A great way to get happy in the present, is to practice gratitude for happier times in the past, and a powerful way to access those memories is through photographs.
Following are 5 ways photography can help all of us access and practice Gratitude in our lives:
1. Set yourself an assignment to deliberately photograph 10 things you are grateful for. Taking photographs is an act of mindfulness in itself. Photography is all about slowing down and deliberately observing our surroundings, which immediately roots us firmly in the present. Constructing or framing our picture deepens our focus on that moment, and then capturing the moment in time preserves our relationship to it forever. Obviously our relationship to the present moment is the actual foundation of Mindfulness!
2. Bring the digital back to analog and into the physical realm. Printing out our pics makes us examine them more closely than when we are absent-mindedly scrolling through our phones. Bringing our images into the real world makes the memories more concrete, which deepens the associated feelings of gratitude. When we hold a photograph in our hand we tend to examine it more thoroughly for details and engage with it more consciously.
3. Create a memory book to remind you and your nearest and dearest of the beautiful memories you’ve made together. We’ve all spent a LOT of time with our loved ones recently and the novelty just may be wearing off. Recently for our anniversary my husband printed one picture from every year we’ve been in our relationship; which melted my Pandemic-frozen heart! Combining memorabilia with the imagery when we assemble the book (sort of like a scrapbook) tells a fuller story of our time together, which embeds the memory even more deeply so ups the gratitude.
4. Buy up a truck-load of frames, spray-paint them white, then trawl through your phone to find and print out your favorite memories buried within. Research shows that the sheer volume and chaos of uncatalogued images choking up our phones causes anxiety that can take away our desire to access them. Physically putting them on display puts the good times in your face, so that every time you pass your photo wall you are forced to take stock of past joys you’ve experienced. They are easily rotatable to keep the gratitude fresh!
5. Every now and then stop, observe and maybe don’t take a photograph. Don’t feel compelled, just because you have a camera in your hand 24/7, to photograph everything you do. This changes the natural flow of life. Sometimes live the moment instead of recording it! There is so much beauty everywhere we look — we live in an abundant sea of it. This is a hard one for me because I work in the photographic field and at this point to capture the moment is a basic instinct, but sometimes I force myself to not to put a barrier between me and the beautiful view.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
Every morning I do Vishen Lakhiani’s 6 Phase meditation as soon as I open my eyes, and it has literally changed my life. It only takes 20 mins, and I am noticeably less happy if i skip it. It’ s pretty heavy on the gratitude component, and includes segments on forgiveness, compassion and manifestation. This morning I made the mistake of checking my phone before I meditated and read an icky message which stressed me out. I went straight to the 6 Phase, practiced some compassion and forgiveness and was able to approach my day in a calmer and more even fashion than if I had
skipped it. Because I had meditated, I was also able to send a clear, factual response rather than the heated one I might’ve sent otherwise, which resulted in a nearly immediate apology and a much better set-up for my day. Having tried unsuccessfully my whole life to meditate, I am now obsessed with it! Literally cannot live without it!
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
I love, love love anything Brene Brown — obviously! Her Unlocking Us podcast is perfection!! And one of the best investments I’ve ever made was buying a yearly subscription to the Mind Valley platform — so many incredible courses on there. Michael Bernard Beckwith’s Life Visioning course changed everything for me. And Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast consistently blows my mind.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would educate the world about the benefits of H.O.P.E. (Help One Person Every Day) It’s such a total win win!! Chris Winfield and Jen Gottlieb of Super Connector Media teach this simple but incredibly effective practice centered around the law of reciprocity and basic human kindness, and it works ! Can you imagine the ripple effect of that, if everyone jumped on board?
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!