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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Five Contemplative Art Practices

image by idea go for

by Catharine Hannay

"Although many of us, under the ceaseless bombardment of photographic and electronic imagery that we experience daily, have lost the gift of seeing, we can learn it anew and learn to retrieve again and again the act of seeing things for the first time, each time we look at them." 
(Frederick Franck,  Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing)

As art teacher Elizabeth McAvoy says, it’s “a subject which naturally lends itself to being mindful.” She used to have her students meditate before creating art, but then she realized that “the very act of creating art put most of the students into a meditative, focused state… really observ[ing] colors, shapes, lines, and textures is an exercise in being mindful.” 

There are a lot of ways to practice mindfully looking at or creating art. Here are a few you could try yourself or with your students:

Variation 1: Gaze at a Painting.  Don't Just Glance at It.

I can quickly get overwhelmed at museums, so I like to slow down and spend some time with one particular painting or sculpture.  It's a nice way to clear my head and practice being fully present with what's in front of me, rather than getting caught up in how much I 'should' see or do.
  • First, turn off your electronics.  As Frederick Franck puts it: 
    "You can look at things while talking or with a radio going full blast, but you can only see when the chatter stops." 
  • Then choose one image to contemplate.
  • Sit or stand and look at your chosen image. for at least a full minute. 
    • This is a lot longer than you might think; you’d be surprised how quickly most of us look at a painting, photograph, or sculpture.   
    • If you grow restless, shift your gaze to focus on a different part of the image, or scan slowly from one side of the image to the other.  Or very slowly move closer to and farther away from the image.
  • Answer the following questions:
    • What did you first notice about this image?
    • What else did you notice as you kept looking at it?
    • What thoughts went through your mind while you were looking at this image?
    • What feelings or memories (if any) did it bring up for you?

Variation 2:  Your Window Frames a Work of Art

This is something I like to do at home, or as a  way of resting my eyes between museum exhibits.  (Occasionally someone will come up next to me and wonder what I'm looking at, which is part of the fun.)
  • Look out the nearest window as if it's a painting or photo of a landscape or cityscape.  
    • What colors and patterns do you see?  
    • If you were a painter or photographer, how would you choose to represent this image?  
    • How does the image change when you move slightly forward and backward or take half a step to the right or left?

photo by Catharine Hannay

Variation 3: Take a Mindful Photo

Selecting an image to photograph can also be a great way to stay in the moment and practice 'mindful seeing.'  

In Secular Meditation, Rick Heller suggests focusing on "small subjects, things you might walk by at other times without paying them any attention."

When one of his students took a lovely close-up shot of a small yellow flower, 
"a passerby asked her if she was visiting from another country and had never seen a dandelion before!  Mindful seeing is acting as if you really haven't seen a dandelion before."  
Heller cautions that an important part of this practice is to 
"notice your emotions, including perhaps a craving to get the next good shot. Sometimes, wanting to take a photo can get in the way of directly experiencing what is present."

Variation 4: Try a Coloring Book.  Really.

Over the past few months, I keep seeing notices for "Adult Coloring Clubs" at different public libraries, as well as a flurry of articles about the benefits of "mindful coloring" as well as a lot of backlash against grown-ups engaging in such a seemingly meaningless, juvenile activity.  

I've never participated in a coloring club personally, but I have brought a coloring book with me a couple of times to hospital waiting rooms.  

The first time, I felt self-conscious about it... until the woman sitting across from me pulled out her own coloring book.  Like me, she was quite anxious about a family member's life-or-death surgery, and it helped to have something to concentrate on in order to keep her thoughts and worries from spinning out of control.

If you want to try coloring somewhere other than a hospital, you could follow Sam Bennett's advice about Paint by Numbers:
    "If anyone catches you at it, say you’re engaging in a post-ironic commentary on the commercialization of color and the homogenization of form in a consumer-based society."  (Get It Done)

Or, since everything sounds more sophisticated in French, you could try, 
"Je fais du coloriage. Et vous?"

But frankly, if coloring helps you stay calm while you're waiting to see the oncologist, or lets you clear your head for a couple of minutes before your next therapy session with a traumatized child, you don't owe anyone an apology.

Variation 5: Do a Terrible Sketch

Of course, it doesn't have to be terrible. But it doesn't have to be ready for the Louvre, either.  

I just finished a five-week workshop on keeping a sketchbook.  This was my first art class in nearly 30 years, after being humiliated by a high school teacher.  This time, the atmosphere was very supportive.  And as we did our weekly check-ins, every single one of my classmates either mentioned the word mindfulness or said something about needing to relieve stress or wanting to slow down and experience the present moment.

If you can let go of perfectionism and just keep focusing on the object in front of you, 'mindful drawing' is a great concentration practice.  

I hope you find one of the above practices appealing. Whichever version you choose, I recommend doing it in real life rather than on a computer.  

Of course, you can go online to look at reproductions of artwork, or even to sketch or to color a mandala.  But most of us spend so much time staring at screens already that it's a good break for our eyes and for our minds to gaze at something that's actually physically present right in front of us right now in the present moment.