A 2014 edition of Time Magazine entitled, The Mindful Revolution, is just one of many significant publications to push mindfulness into the mainstream. Simply put, mindfulness is a state of consciousness that evokes awareness and compassion. As basic a concept as mindfulness may seem, our devices and the accessibility of the world at our fingertips has removed us from the very experience of being. We are more anxious, depressed, and isolated than ever before. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment”. Time spent in the present moment creates a sense of contentment, inner spaciousness, and mental clarity. When we sift through the layers of brain fuzz (stray thoughts, charged emotions, judgments, unwavering opinions, and mind chatter), we are left with the enormity of the moment and a palpable sense of being that feels connected and 100% pure. We need more experiences that help bring us back to the practice of observing and absorbing time as it unfolds. Yoga, meditation, and observing and creating art are all ways of practicing mindfulness.
The link between meditation and observing art is profound. Just as witnessing the breath in meditation connects us to the here and now, the process of observing a work of art is a doorway to the present moment. As with meditation, looking at a work of art forces us to slow down; to shift from rapid and habitual patterns of thinking, and to become more streamlined and focused. To stand in front of a work of art requires the ability to be still and engage in the act of seeing—taking in color, line, movement, the obvious details and the subtler undertones the way you might take in the breath, sensations in the body, and energy of your thoughts during a seated meditation. Through the simple process of seeing the art observer can enter a higher state of consciousness.
Art, like meditation, opens the space between our thoughts and emotions and allows us to move into a higher level of consciousness. When we see art we are often moved or inspired. Just as in meditation, we may have a visceral experience, feeling a tingling in the brain or warmth in the heart space. Observing art allows us to step outside ourselves and open to something beautiful, something different, something unexpected. Art makes us vulnerable and forces us to consider possibilities. There’s a non-verbal language that exists between the art work and the viewer. Art communicates what words cannot; and in that exchange awareness and compassion (the two wings of mindfulness) can unfold.
How to practice mindfulness while observing a work of art:
- Head to your local art museum or gallery. Bring a journal and pencil.
- Give yourself time to become settled and set an intention to be observant.
- Carve out a window of time to be there and allow yourself the opportunity to walk slowly through the gallery space(s).
- Notice your surroundings: the lighting, the layout of the space, the sounds (or silence) around you, and of course, the art.
- Find a work of art that you are naturally drawn to.
- Stand or sit far enough away to take in the entire work.
- Soften your gaze and relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders.
- Let your eyes move slowly across the surface of the work. Notice where your gaze naturally rests. Observe the colors, shapes, lines, textures, and forms.
- Notice what arises as you observe. Be receptive to the thoughts, emotions, memories, and ideas that surface.
- Stay for several full, deep breaths, taking in the art the same way that you take in the breath.
- Consider writing or drawing in response to the art work. Write or draw freely, without inhibition. Give yourself time and permission to explore.
- As with meditation, give yourself plenty of time to wrap up so that the experience can be integrated into the rest of your day.
The brain is an incredible machine. Its power to invent, create, design, conceptualize, contemplate, and form new connections is limitless. Its ability to multi-task and engage in multiple layers of awareness is a both a blessing and a curse. At any given moment, your mind is occupied by thoughts—some might be heavy with emotion while others are light and fleeting. Within the very same moment there is probably an underlying mood that effects your state of mind. A part of you may be thinking about an email you need to answer, while another part of you sees or hears something that sparks a memory. This mental static dims our mind’s potential, the layers upon layers of “mind stuff” scatters our attention, and like a hamster on a wheel, we become locked in perpetual mind chatter. Opportunities that break the patterns of thinking (yoga, meditation, observing art) open us up to the richness of the moment and all its possibilities. When we can unveil the layers, we get to the heart of ourselves. We tap into our creative potential and free ourselves from limitations. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable”. We create distractions to pass time, numb pain, and alter our realities. Art spaces hold treasures for us to discover. Much like our breath, they are always there, waiting to be found.