Can You Meditate Through Art?
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.
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oh my goodness! You make it look so easy! I really never even considered making my own mandala. I think I could even teach my kids to make one. Thanks again for making art accessible to those of us who don’t consider ourselves “artsy.” 🙂
Geez, I make it look easy? Glad I make something look that way! I’m thrilled to hear you say that it feels accessible. This is the whole idea! I know YOU don’t think you are “artsy” but the big secret is that you actually are. Are you someone who could draw whatever comes to mind? Maybe not. Are you the person who can sit in front of a building and draw it accurately. Perhaps no. But, there are so many simple, enjoyable art techniques that really require NO SPECIAL TALENT in order to make something beautiful. I am all about bringing that to as many people as possible. We are all artists of one kind or another. Creating is the natural order.
Your words are a gift. They help deafen out some of those crickets!
Hi Amy: I love all your art therapy directives and suggestions. We definitely have to meet at some point. I have been out straight recently getting ready for an art show with my “artists”. I will make contact once things have calmed down a bit. Thanks for posting!
I love that you are reading and commenting! Thank you so much for taking the time. It’s so fun to share some ideas for art for self-care, and it’s even more fun when people “get it.”
I would love to get together! Give me a shout out any time you are ready.
I am an artist who makes jewelry. I love the concept that making art is a form of meditation. I think we can transmit energy through our art by what we put into it.
I once went to an exhibition of Reynold’s portraits and I could literally feel the presence of the people in the paintings.
Hi Vanessa! I love this story. It is amazing when we can transmit so much through our creative lives. I’m happy you’re here and I hope you find many meditative moments in your jewelry making.
Before I met you in the Blog community, I was only vaguely aware of art therapy.
Now, with this post, I can really see all the benefit. Even only reading how to make my own Mandala brought me peace so thank you !
It’s so lovely of you to drop by and visit. I’m so glad that even just reading about making mandalas is peaceful for you. That’s powerful stuff! Geez, I should find myself something to read at night that feels equally relaxing. Hee!
I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, and honestly I’m so heartened to hear that I have helped raise a tiny bit of awareness about art therapy. Thank you for that.
Oh my gosh, I love this Amy! I love mandalas and you make this look suuuuuper easy, I really want to try it now. I have been wanting to both take more time to meditate and also play with art, so I absolutely LOVE the idea of combining the two. Thank you, thank you for such a fantastic post!
Welcome to foxboroarttherapy.com! I’m so tickled that you stopped by and enjoyed the post so much. I’m also thrilled to hear that you have been thinking about playing with art and meditation. Of course my answer is, you should follow that impulse! The mandalas are super easy. Please let me know how you like it. Play around with different techniques too because what I like may be different from what you like. If you like to take things more loose, just grab some chalk or oil pastels from Michael’s and play with blending some colors inside the circle. For a more structured approach with a roadmap, you could use this tutorial, or look on Pinterest for Indian mandalas and find tons of beautiful examples to follow.
Thank you for brightening my day with your sweet words and I hope you enjoy it!
Amy, I know I’ve told you before, but I really admire what you do! I think there is such a need for art as an outlet for therapy. And I honestly feel many people would be more open to expressing themselves/learning about themselves/working on themselves through art than other sessions that we would consider more “typical” of therapy. Love this so so much!
You are the sweetest, and so easy to “talk” to on here. Whether people are using art for personal healing at home or in art classes, or if they are attending art therapy with an art therapist, for me it really is so amazing the way that art turns on different parts of our brain and senses to help us recruit more of our inner wisdom and wellness. It’s amazing to me how helpful it is for problem solving and insight in sessions with clients, and for catharsis, self-expression, and understanding when I use it personally.
What are you creating these days Casey?
Thank you again so much for taking the time to comment.
Thank you Amy. Just beginning to find out how powerful this is. Love the way you make it so accessible.
Oh I’m so glad you found this helpful. If you feel moved, you can post your mandala in our private FB group, Creative Self-Care.
thanks for reading!
Many thanks Amy- I’d love to????
I am a Mandala Artist and thank you for this lovely article. Love your site. I am from India and this art form e\was passed down from mother to daughter for the last 2000 years. my website is http://www.radartist.com
Yes there’s so much in common in what we do! xo
Amy,, llevo tanto tiempo sabiendo de ti que me duele no saber inglés, estoy traduciendo todo lo que te leo.
Sabes, pinto realismo, pero también necesito pintar Sin pensar, sin tecnica, hacerlo como un reflejo que me sobreviene.
Claro, no siempre funciona artísticamente. Mi creatividad ha disminuido,. Contigo estoy asumiendo lo que en verdad importa. Y aun tengo mucho que aprender de ti.
Gracias, por tu tiempo, por tus enseñanzas, por todo el amor que ofreces. Besos
Alicia – Estoy tan agradecida de tenerte aqui en la comunidad. Y me alegro mucho de que te puedo ofrecer algo de inspiracion. XO