The science is in. Looking at art is good for you, and so is mindfulness meditation. Both lower cortisol in our bodies, reducing our feeling of stress, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on how profoundly nourishing these practices are. Science has also shown that both activities can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" functions. When this system is activated, it counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. The result is a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
What could be better than combining the two in a wonderful workshop I recently experienced at the Orlando Museum of Art? Led by my colleague at Orlando Insight Meditation Group, Lezlie Laws, we sat in a beautiful gallery full of evocative paintings and sculptures, diving into all the basics of mindfulness meditation to get the group started, even the absolute beginners. Then, we did an 8-minute guided meditation together in this serene open space perfect for the art of contemplation.
It's said that mindfulness is as much science as it is art. The Buddha himself was an original contemplative artist and natural psychologist, using his own experience, trial and error, and keen powers of self-awareness to find a path to freedom and happiness from the default condition of the human mind. This default condition of sensing danger, seeing negativity, seeking pleasant experiences that motivate us toward basic food and reproductive rewards, and recoiling from unpleasant experience has helped us survive as a species. But increasingly, in an age of plenty for many, and an age of intense uncertainty, our minds can become our worst enemies. It can lead us down unproductive and addictive paths of excess worry, excess craving, living in the past, fantasizing unreasonably about the future, and ignoring the rich wisdom, experience, and fruits of the present moment.
The very wonder of our being, and the precious gift of breath that is the foundational condition of our being alive, is also the portal to knowing who we really are beyond the joys and pains of the world, beyond the problems of our day. Stepping into this spaciousness helps us to see and feel what we really need and what we can let go of. In a world overwhelmed with consumer desire, competing needs, polarization, war, and climate change, being a force of peace within and without, needing only what is necessary, and being an agent of change in this way is a radical act. And it is also deeply fulfilling, good for your mind and body, and available to everyone, every day. We can call it ordinary enlightenment, and over time millions have achieved it quietly and effectively, experiencing better lives because of it.
Combining this rich practice in a revered public space full of masterful artworks brings in another cherished accomplishment of humanity. The language of color, shape, texture, and form seen on a large scale can affect us deeply in ways we cannot explain, making it perfect for this workshop. Because when we use art as a meditative object, we intentionally let go of any narratives around it. We are using our senses, feeling our way into the art, with no judgments, no analysis, just being with it. Whether we are experiencing pleasant or unpleasant responses to the work doesn’t matter. Being with the piece in whatever way it shows up for us and resting in that experience, allowing it to be as it is, engages us in this meditative practice. An added bonus is that looking at art is good for our well-being in its own right. Lezlie mentioned a phrase to motivate beginners, explaining the minimum effective dose of mindfulness needed to make a difference and progress on our journey. With this type of meditation, we are getting a double minimum effective dose of art and mindfulness!
If you want to try it yourself, go to a museum, look at art in a home, or in a large book, or perhaps on a larger screen, and find a piece to focus on. Set a timer for 2-3 minutes. As you look at the art, gently remain aware of your in-breath and out-breath, preferably through your nose, breathe at a natural pace, and feel your way into the artwork. Be with the texture, colors, and forms without making judgments or forming a narrative. If you notice yourself beginning to have narrative thoughts, gently return to the breath and any focal points within the work you can relax into. If it is a challenging piece, you can also let any emotions or thoughts about the content arise and fall away as you experience them. Gently return your focus to the breath as needed.
If you are in Orlando, there are three more days scheduled for this workshop coming up in September and October. Find the link to register here: https://omart.org/events/event_detail/meditation_in_the_gallery/2023/09/23/
If you are anywhere else, try this rich exercise and feel the sense of calm and joy that can come from it.
Resources: To dive more deeply into the benefits of art check this out: https://www.yourbrainonart.com To learn more about mindfulness meditation find out more below:
Lezlie Laws: https://www.lezlielaws.com
April Koester: https://www.aprilkoester.com
Orlando Insight Meditation Group: https://orlandoinsightmeditation.org