When was the last time you enjoyed what you were doing so much that you lost track of time?
Can you think of a time when you were having coffee with a friend, reading, praying, beach combing, or making art, you got so immersed that you suddenly realized two hours had gone by without you realizing?
This experience is something researchers refer to as “flow,” and it turns out it’s really important for your mental and emotional health. It also turns out that it’s particularly common during art making.
(You can read more about why we experience flow in art here.)
When Do You Experience “Flow?”
When I get into a state of flow through art, I feel like I am a “medium.” I am less making “decisions” about what to do in the art than I am allowing it to emerge and develop. When this happens, it’s pretty magical.
I really feel like I am not in control of the art that is coming from me. (I could get in the way of course, and sometimes I do, but I try not to.) There are moments I say to myself, “You want me to do WHAT? That’s going to look horrible!” But I do it anyway.
Sometimes it does look horrible, but often it doesn’t . It’s a fascinating ride, not knowing what comes next. I am focused on one singular thing, the art, I let go of control, and I feel both calmer and more energized. Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like meditation, right?
You can meditate through art.
Letting Go of Control
My favorite author, Isabel Allende, talks about not planning out her novels. Each year, she sits down on the same day, and starts writing a new novel. She has no plan, nothing. She lets whatever wants to come, come.
She follows her characters’ wishes instead of dictating their lives. Boy, some of us could take a note from her in real life, huh?
If you are somewhat new to art, or are currently in a slump, letting go of control over the product, and following the “process” can be a beautiful way to experience flow and meditate through art. For me, this is spiritual. This is meditating through art.
Mandalas: “Spiritual” Art
I don’t see any art form as any more spiritual than another. I believe a person’s intention can make art either a spiritual experience or not. However, some art forms seem to more easily lend themselves to a “spiritual” or mindful experience. One such form is the mandala. I mentioned them in a post a few weeks back about helping kids with anxiety through art.
Bailey Cunningham, founder of The Mandala Project, and author of Mandala: Journey to the Center, explains that a mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle, or wholeness. She notes:
“It represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself – a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.”
This explanation hit home for me when she began ticking off all of the different places that mandalas appear. When people gather, we do it in a circle – for music, dancing, prayer, or just talking. Look for mandalas all around you:
– In the natural world: atoms, cells, eyes, faces, shells, fruit, flowers, trees, acorns, the sun, moon, stars, orbiting planets
– In architecture: Domed buildings: the U.S. Capitol, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Taj Majal, the Dome of the Rock, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, parts of Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, the Parthenon, and countless ancient and modern temples
– In art: Tibetan sand mandalas, Celtic spirals, Yin and Yang, Halos, and in children’s first figurative drawings
Mandalas are everywhere.
Mandalas and Art Therapy
As an art therapist, I see part of my job as making art accessible to everyone. Mandalas are a mainstay for art therapists. Because the mandala is a universal symbol, it feels accessible. You can fill a mandala with free form color, or create a highly patterned piece.
For someone who is not in touch with their artistic side, a mandala can be a safe place to start making art. I need that sometimes, don’t you?
Mandala: One Way to Meditate Through Art
There are countless ways to meditate through art, and countless ways to make a mandala. There really is no right or wrong. But because I’m thinking there’s a chance that you either need some inspiration for something new, or some direction because it’s your first mandala, here’s a step by step guide.
1. Gather your materials:
Paper, pencil, round object for tracing, and markers. Toss in one white or metallic pen for extra fun.
2. Create an Intention.
Once you have all your materials ready and have cleared a space for art making, take a few minutes to sit quietly. Use this short relaxation and visualization to create an intention:
Pay attention to your breath. Notice what it feels like as the wave of air moves naturally into your lungs, your chest and belly rising, and then out through your nose, your body falling as the wave crashes.
Just follow the breath gently with your attention. You don’t need to judge it or change it, just follow it.
After a few cycles of this, I invite you to call to mind that quality or feeling that you most need right now. You might need calm, centering, energy, peace, humor, or surrender. When you are clear about what your intention should be, focus on that word for a few breaths.
Imagine that through your art making today, you will receive that quality or feeling.
When this feels concrete, you can gently open your eyes.
3. Trace a circle
4. Create a pattern based on simple shapes or lines.
I picked little flower petals.
5. Repeat or elaborate on the pattern.
After I made the little petals, in between each petal I drew more petals that were a bit fatter and pointed at the end.
Then I repeated those fat, pointy petals over each other until I reached the edge of the circle. I also added some dots into some of them.
6. Fill in your pattern with color.
What is your experience with flow, making mandalas, and spiritual art? What important mandalas did I not mention on my list? Does your art practice (or exercise, or cooking, or woodworking) feel spiritual at times? Why do you think that is?
Here’s some more resources on meditating through art and mandalas.
Why Is Art Making a Form of Meditation? – Nice post from Art Therapy Reflections
Calm Down and Get Your Zentangle On – Famed art therapist Cathy Malchiodi’s piece on Zentangle and meditative state
Mandalas as a Spiritual Practice – A nice page from the University of New Hampshire
The Meditative Art School – A couple who specializes in art and spirituality retreats in beautiful, exotic locations. How fun is that?
Celebrating the Mysteries: A Retrospective – A gorgeous book of artist Leo Kenney’s art. They are luminescent.
Cunningham, B. (2002). Mandala: Journey to the Center, New York: DK Publishing.