Take it all in…Relax…Breathe: Mindfulness and Art

There has been much said lately about mindful eating, mindful running, mindful brushing your teeth. It’s not a ludicrous concept, just one that is difficult to do. It’s the Oprah idea of focusing on the moment, being in the present and attuned to our surroundings.

Apparently, mindful anything relieves stress and allows us to enjoy every second of life. Not a bad idea by any means. But how?

Many people have a fixed mindset. Women are trained to multi-task and plan ahead. What’s for dinner? Where will the kids go to daycare? Is it my turn tomorrow to lead that meeting at work? Men are instilled at an early age to worry about finances, to get ahead, to provide whatever, and all at the same time. That indoctrination comes early from our parents and later our peers.

Apparently, this “set in our ways” mindset is not allowing us to break this cycle of “performing.” 

Let’s zero in on THIS moment. You’re reading these words right now this very second. Are you sitting comfortably or walking with your cell? Are you just taking a minute to yourself in the break room or having lunch with friends? If the answer to each of those questions is the former, you’re already off to a great start.  

Now let’s move to a work of art. Staring at a painting, especially a mesmerizing one, can bring your brain into the focus of the right now. Your eyes can get lost in the depths of the work, in the color, the form, the movement.

Try not to think in words. Just take it all in and breathe. Don’t worry about how much the painting costs, how it was created, not even the identity of the artist. All of those wonderings will distract from the peace of getting surrounded by color.

What section of this work first drew your attention and pulled you like a magnet until you could see it up close? And when you approached, did the surface enrichen, did the strokes rise to meet you, did the hints of an underpainting pop into view?

There, you’ve enjoyed a bit of alone time with music for your eyes. That’s what viewing art is all about. When it comes to describing our mindset, art exchanges the word “fixed” for “growing” and “expanding”. These moments alone with a work of art can recharge our spirit and open our thoughts…giving us the calm our hectic life so desperately needs.

BONUS post: Why are students closer to their Art teacher than they are to other teachers?

I built the Art Station in 2007 in the hopes of providing art instruction for the lost generations of adults who never had or were denied the opportunity to take art in school. I had already enjoyed 33 years of teaching teenagers and imagined an exciting retirement of being surrounded by sane adults who simply desired to learn how to draw and paint. I could provide an outlet for the hidden artist in each of them.

I soon came to realize that The Art Station had certainly been needed, but not necessarily for the glorious sake of art. No, The Art Station turned out to be more of a refuge for trapped spirits and even more so, a source of solace for weary minds deprived of the thrill of free thinking.

Yes, I know a teacher has a job of a different color than the average accountant or engineer. After forty years in front of a classroom, it did not take me long to grasp that my every word, facial expression and hand gesture was received and interpreted on an emotional basis.

"Your hair looks great today, Betsy" is easily transcribed in a student's mind as "Your hair looked terrible yesterday."  An accountant offering that same compliment would hear a simple "Thank-you" followed by "Now, let's talk about my taxes."

A teacher's influence can never be minimized even by the most inept instructor. The last thing I want is to hear my name when Betsy ends up on a therapist's couch.  A hostile teacher's fame grows quickly in psychoanalytical circles.

Any class is an emotional tit-for-tat between instructor and pupil, yet teaching the visual or performing arts makes the emotional exchanges even more complex.  Art, by the nature of that wild beast, is already a touchy-feely course. When Betsy creates freely (and no, I'm not talking paint by number here), she reveals her subconscious, her feelings, her gut.  When she wakes up from this right brain trance, she sees a part of herself on that canvas that she never knew existed. Therefore, a compliment now is not only about her painting, but it is also about her soul. Betsy will automatically take my response personally as my words will be even more sensitively heard and, yes, misinterpreted.

So, why bother, you ask?  Easy. The personal benefits of teaching any subject are great, but the rewards of teaching Art are phenomenal.  There is no other profession like it, in or out of the education field. I not only get to help students diminish the fears that keep them from being creative in art, but also in life. They can transfer those higher order thinking skills to their everyday challenges and solve their problems creatively.  I am privileged to get to peek inside their heads and help them face those fears, and I’m thrilled to be invited along for the ride as they turn down their critical inner voice.

And if my name does come up later during Betsy's therapy session, I hope it is accompanied by a sigh and a smile, and that the counselor is so impressed by her progress that Betsy doesn't have to pay the bill.