Dear Wonderful, Creative You:
A few months ago I did a post called Can You Meditate Through Art? where I shared a tutorial on mandalas using art as a way to meditate.
So many of you told me how inspiring it was, I’d like to talk more in depth about mindfulness and meditation, as well as sharing two more tutorials on using art as a mindful, meditative practice.
What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Ira Israel, a licensed psychotherapist and mindfulness expert recently did a piece for the Huffington Post about the differences between mindfulness and meditation. He explains how the purpose of “basic meditation” is to achieve “MindLESSness” in an effort to clear the mind and realize your divinity, whereas in mindfulness meditation, you focus intentionally and non-judgmentally on one thought or sensation rather than allowing your mind to flutter aimlessly here and there.
I like how Isreal clarifies it this way: “If you’re focusing on the breath to transcend your ego and realize your inner divinity, then that is Basic Meditation, more in line with the Hindu lineage of meditation; if you’re focusing on your breath to try to harness and train the mind and observe any thoughts that arise non-judgmentally, then that is Mindfulness Meditation, more in line with the Buddhist lineage.”
Mindfulness Is a Way of Life
You can be mindful in anything you do. It’s a way of living. You can walk mindfully, talk mindfully, cook mindfully, even shower mindfully, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains in this interview with Oprah Winfrey. It’s about actually experiencing the moment you are IN.
How Does Mindful Art Work?
Laury Rappaport, an artist and expressive therapist based in California, is the author of Focusing-oriented art therapy, and author/editor of Mindfulness and the arts therapies: Theory and practice. I was lucky enough to talk with her this week about how she uses art a meditative practice. She put it like this:
“Art provides a focus – like a mantra or awareness of the breath moving in and out of the body. Creating art helps me to access a meditative state – where the small mind and body chatter recede – and I access a great expansiveness that fills me with a deep sense of peace and stillness.
Listening to the art through contemplation and expressive arts methods helps me to access deeper states of awareness and insight. Through art making, an alchemy occurs in which states of inner conflict and confusion are transformed from suffering into greater compassion.”
I love how Laury points out the importance of sitting with our art products. Frequently when I finish making a piece of art, I am mystified about its meaning. Perhaps I am staring at a bird or gorilla, and I have no idea what it has to say to me.
When I take the time and effort to contemplate the piece through writing, dialogue, or movement, it will reveal itself, and help transform my feelings or understanding about a particular issue. Using art this way – attending to it, respecting it, and engaging in the process mindfully, often creates a spiritual experience that transcends my every day experience. See this video tutorial on creating “spiritual art.”
(To learn more about Laury and her work, click here.)
Meditative Art vs. Mindful Art
I think it’s important to know the difference between mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, and [basic] meditation. When you make meditative art, you may be doing it mindfully, meditatively, or vacillating between the two. There are times I get lost in the art and experience flow, which we talked about in part 1 of this series. I believe flow is akin to what Israel calls “mindLESSness,” or basic meditation.
There are other times I tune into the sensory experience of making art – noticing the sound of the chalk, the smell of my paints, and the feel of my hand as it moves across the page. I would call this mindful art meditation.
There are many different ways to approach art mindfully or meditatively, and sometimes your art won’t be either. There are days I am careless or playful in my art, and end up in a state of flow, and other days I’m very mindful and intentional, and end up with a muddy looking painting and a feeling of frustration.
Much like with a yoga practice, your job as an artist is not to achieve perfection, whether in the process or the product. Our job is to practice. To show up. To be present. Like any habit, once you practice enough, you’ll start to reap the rewards, and it will be harder to stop making art than to start.
Mindful Art Exercises
I have always been a fan of mindful photography, though I didn’t always know what I was doing. My photography teacher in college gave us an assignment to photograph and object from 360 degrees.
The intent was to help us stretch artistically, and expose our “eye” to new angles that we would not have considered. I often remember this assignment, and approach subjects I am photographing this way.
Besides helping me come up with more interesting shots, I find that it increases my focus, creativity, and curiosity towards a subject. I see beauty in places I would have missed.
I love immersing myself in a subject, capturing those frozen moments, and seeing which ones please me most. To really take advantage of this method, I suggest approaching it in an intentional way. You might experiment with some of the following:
Mindful Art Exercise #1: Mindful Photography
1. Begin by choosing your subject.
2. Sit with the subject you are going to photograph and take a few minutes to really study it and experience it in as many ways as you can. Touch it. Smell it. Listen to it. This should inform your photographs as well as creating a more mindful approach.
Look at the photo below. Doesn’t the wilted iris in the right side of the frame look like a little bird? If I hadn’t studied this flower from all angles, I would have missed that, and it seems sort of magical to me. I also love seeing all the veins in the flower petals from below. The variation in color is so intense.
3. Take photographs from every angle – above, below, to the left, to the right, and everything in between. Notice your breath, feelings, body sensations, and any thoughts that arise. Attending to these experiences is the mindfulness part, the being in the NOW. You could also decide to let all this go, and just see what happens. Play with your approach.
Whatever your experience, be present with it. If you feel frustrated with the project, notice your frustration. If you get lost in flow, notice how free you feel. What you experience may not be as important as your ability to stay present in the moment.
Mindful Art Exercise #2: Mindful Drawing
Susan Dahl is an artist and art therapist in Greater Boston who teaches a technique called mindful drawing. She has kindly allowed me to share her approach with you.
She suggests using a large paper (9 x12 or larger) and chalk pastel, but notes that this technique can also easily be done with pen or pencil on 8.5 x 11 paper. I would add that this technique would translate beautifully with watercolor painting as well. Experiment with materials, and see what works best for you.
Drawing the Breath, from Susan Dahl:
1. As you breathe in, begin “following” the breath with your pastel.
2. When you exhale, keep your pastel moving, but in a different direction. You will change direction each time you inhale and exhale.
3. Notice what thoughts arise, but let them float by, keeping the focus on the breath.
4.Start with 10 breaths and work up to 20, or set a timer for 3 minutes.
5. Once you reach the goal time or number of breaths, you can continue to draw, adding whatever inspires you, or just put it aside.
I enjoyed not picking up my pastel and allowing my breath to dictate the length of each line and its direction. I added some extra color at the end, as Susan suggested. You can learn more about Susan Dahl and her Mindful Drawing classes here.
You can also try another mindful drawing exercise that focuses on attending to a subject very carefully in this post.
Please share your wisdom, questions, and your experience. What do you think about these approaches? Would you try the photography with your cell phone even as a short break from work? Drop into the comments and let us know.
Israel, Ira, May 21, 2015. Huffington Post Online: “What’s the Difference Between Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mindfulness Meditation, and Basic Meditation?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ira-israel/types-of-mindfulness_b_3347428.html
Rappaport, Laury. (2013). Mindfulness and the arts therapies: Theory and practice. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.
Rappaport, Laury. (2008). Focusing – oriented art therapy. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.