Written by Leanne Esposito
THAT IS THE QUESTION WE MUST ASK
MEET RUSS BENNING AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN WHO THROUGH ADVERSITY
HAS AWAKENED TO LIVE A GREATER LIFE SHARING KNOWLEDGE WITH CARE
Now here’s a couple of seminal questions we need to ask ourselves when we think of the concept of caring.
Each are worthy of deeply abiding consideration and thoughtful provocation if we wish to be truly honest in the present moment.
Now stay with me. It’s worth it. I promise. I ask you to take a minute or two while I expand on a couple of ideas here.
First. If you don’t care for yourself, then who’s going to really care for you?
And before you chide me with the disability card here, imagine all of the amazing people who are either physically or psychologically challenged and who do their utmost to live a fulfilled life by caring enough to better themselves. Learned helplessness is something I believe they shun in order to feel strong despite their afflictions.
Alternatively, are you so confident, and brave and self-sustaining that you truly believe that you have enough strength, resilience and compassion, to genuinely care for another without first checking in with yourself?
I hope I haven’t lost you. This is not a navel gazing session, rather a gentle thought provoking prod at ourselves to discover our genuine source and potential ability to truly care for self and others.
Let’s look at two complementary theories which uphold the premise that we need a strength of purpose to well serve another human.
One is the notion that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Essentially, this means that in order for us as humans, to effectively take care of others, we must initially take care of ourselves. Our cup must first be filled. Selfish is the word that may spring to mind, but wait there is more which underpins the veracity of this maxim.
The other is The Oxygen Mask Theory which, if you have travelled on an aeroplane you will know the drill. “First secure your mask before assisting children or the elderly”. In other words, in order to help other people, you must first and foremost survive. You will need that oxygen mask to stay alive. So you must help yourself before you help others. In such a situation you should at least practice enough self-care to be alive, awake, and alert.
Both these notions are intuitive in nature, but can be more difficult to put into practice, especially if you abhor the thought of being selfish – right? It seems counter intuitive to the selfless nature of caring.
Now, I believe it’s time for me to introduce you to the man in whose company I experienced this very teachable moment. The day I learnt, that in order to be selfless, you must first be selfish and practice self-care.
I can honestly say that I’ve not ever met a young man so open and aware: aware of otherness. Not just in his immediate surroundings or his job at hand, which was speaking to me, but in the existential, or nature of our existence.
Our two-hour conversation covered a diverse range of topics from birth to death, eastern philosophy and religion, the universe and everything in between.
I latterly discovered through his Instagram posts @russbenningphotography that even though he was born in Melbourne and loves Australia, he is not a huge fan of borders and considers himself a citizen of the Earth. A small statement which only scratches the surface of who is this man.
Russ was most certainly born in Melbourne and moved to Mildura at the age of seven where he finished his schooling before completing a Bachelor of Business in Tourism and Hospitality in Bendigo. He would regularly visit Hervey Bay where his grandparents owned a holiday house. It’s the one he now calls home. While those locations bookend his life to date there have been many travels, trials and travails in between.
Prior to embarking on a career in photography in 2011 where he photographed weddings, real estate, commercial and nightclub gigs, Russ did work in tourism.
“I went to visit a friend in Airlie Beach and fell in love. I took a job in tourism for two years travelling up and down the Queensland coast working in account management and sales. I guaranteed two years and I upheld that agreement. I resigned because seeing other people travel inspired me to travel,” he said.
Returning to work in a winery in Mildura during the vintage season afforded him the resources to top up his bank balance enough to embark on what would be an amazing journey across the Americas from Canada in the north, through the United States, ending up in Colombia where he agreed to work as an extra in a telenovela (television show) called Ninas mal.
“They were looking for gringos. It was awesome. I met a lot of ex-pats in Bogata. For the next two weeks I was hardly in the show but I loved it,” he said.
During his formative years Russ confessed to not needing a camera to capture a visual memory in perpetuity, but that soon changed.
“I took a point and shoot camera. It didn’t weigh me down or change the way I moved. I soon learned the power of photography in recognising, appreciating and sharing beauty in all it’s forms. I had been around the world. I wanted to share,” he said.
Returning to Airlie Beach was where his photography skills were honed and his love for telling stories through creative art was sealed.
“I bought my first SLR camera when I was offered a job back in Airlie Beach taking photos on a boat off Whitehaven Beach. Two weeks later the boat was decommissioned. In that time, I met another guy who taught me so much about photography. My initial agreement was nullified and my new colleague and I registered our brand R & R Digital Imaging. I learnt a lot while continuing to shoot lifestyle, portraits and wedding photography,” he said.
Russ was easily swimming along a lively river until he hit the strongest turbulence of his young life. At 35 he suffered a stroke which damaged his occipital lobe and his creative ability was compromised.
“I was photographing on Whitehaven Beach. It was hot and I thought I was suffering from heatstroke. I had a history of migraines so I thought I needed to drink more water. My girlfriend at the time cared for me. After two or three days my vision had not returned. I saw a neurologist in Townsville who confirmed the stroke diagnosis and told me that my vision is not coming back,” he said.
While an acceptance of this traumatic physical upheaval is a daily practice for Russ it has provided growth for him in other areas. He appears to have surrendered to his current state and is peacefully, with practice, flowing along the river of life.
“It’s a dance and balance between owning it and getting on with it anyway, also allowing yourself to grieve. We all have these two poles between victim mode and responsibility. It’s my choice. Like the Buddhist saying, there are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle. I choose the second,” he said.
Thich Nhat Hanh, author of The Miracle of Mindfulness supports that all we are and do is a miracle.
“You are the miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle.”
We just need to believe that we are all miracles and that in the choice miraculous things happen.
Often it’s in a daily practice that we learn to believe in the miraculous and in ourselves and begin to reshape the broken part of each of us to a point that we can care for and help others.
Russ has identified and sat with the dark times he suffered post stroke. I personally can’t imagine what it is to have experienced an upheaval as devastating as having your creative abilities, those that you most enjoy, those for which you live and breathe; those for which you get out the bed in the morning, snatched from this world and this reality. Russ has remained positive by making gentle shifts in his life through first, a Vipassana (an ancient mindfulness meditation technique) Retreat and a spiritual journey to Bali which have helped him heal.
“I don’t want to say that I’ve been through the dark day of the soul and that I’m now perfect. It’s never over or complete until we stop breathing.
“People that have an experience note that a degree of wisdom does come but, it doesn’t mean that the rest of life is sunshine and rainbows.
“It is a constant commitment to nurture the inner child. What is self-care if it’s not that,” Russ said.
Russ, like us all, is a work in progress. However, what he has learnt about himself through the support of an online Men’s Circle has given him strength to find another way to live. He is now running the Men’s Circle and is a Mindset Coach. Through constant self-reflection and care he is now able to assist others.
“I’ve been through anxiety and depression and I’m deeply passionate about awareness, understanding and prevention of mental illness,” he said.
He said that he subscribes to everything in personal development, to some degree, and that important practices like mediation and journaling are a good place to start.
“The four cores of my program are meditation and some mindfulness practice; journaling; movement (bodies need to move); diet and nutrition. Remember we are what we eat. Food is medicine. Real food, ideally organic, food without chemicals and refinement.
“The body is intelligent and needs the right ingredients. Our natural state is abundance.
“Just like a tree, with the right ingredients of wind, water and fertile soil, there is no way it won’t thrive.
“It doesn’t need coaching,” he said.
With so many profound statements in such a short space, which is sometimes difficult to digest, it’s time to guide you back to the importance of self-care before you can care for others.
Let’s examine the title of the article, the one before the seminal questions. It is indeed Shakespearian in nature, if you recognised the pun. And like every great man, either writer, guru or philosopher, who has come before and asked the same questions, it’s those wise souls who’ve taught their fellow humans similar lessons in multiple ways. All we need to do is take note and listen.
I’ve listened and I believe that Russ Benning is such a man. In his trauma there has been an awakening. His life purpose statement is humbling. He says that he lives to enjoy and appreciate a full human experience and inspires others to do the same. It’s as if he is now living in abundance and throwing some our way.
And in his observations he is capable of seeing the true beauty in our world and his mission is to share that beauty.
He now lives with an abundance of purpose contributing to a collective consciousness willing to learn the real nature of life. We are indeed fortunate to be sharing an energetic connection with a man who is caring enough about his fellow human to openly share what he inherently feels.