Art and Meditation
Art and meditation and how they intersect have been interesting me more and more. I was recently inspired by Shannon Stephens‘s Yoga Journal article 12 Steps to Turn an Art Museum Visit into a Mindful Meditation and I thought I’d give her lesson of using artwork as a “doorway to the present moment” a try at my beloved National Gallery in London. Usually a visit here involves a crowded special exhibition accompanied by an audioguide, a friend or family member getting a tour of London’s cultural highlights, or an afternoon stroll through many galleries while digesting dim sum. I look at a lot of paintings, but I’m not sure I always see much. However, coming with the intention to see just one painting felt like a wonderful indulgence.
The important and most pressing question was: which painting to choose?
I followed Shannon’s advice and just took a stroll through the galleries. Of course there were loads of tourists, and school groups, and selfie-stick ballets around every turn. But then a pair of eyes would catch me from a gallery wall – whose portrait is that? Or a Christ would be so stunningly realised I’d forget I wasn’t quite Christian anymore. A bowl of fruit by a Dutch master would remind me I was due an afternoon snack.
I knew I wanted to sit with a piece of art I didn’t know that well so I’d stay out of my conceptual mind. I walked quickly past anything that would remind me of graduate school essays filled with John Berger quotes reminding anyone who would listen that such and such piece reinforced the patriarchy or was a demonstration of the power of the ruling classes. I wanted something that would allow my mind to have more of a free experience. Nor would I, after the fact, research the piece or try to validate or challenge my experience. This is about my interaction on this Monday afternoon.
Even though it was quite crowded, I found my way into the 20th century galleries and to a Monet that had an all important empty seat in front of it. I didn’t read the label and with my limited knowledge of horticulture assumed it was more lilies.
But the colours and scale immediately appealed to me and I knew I could befriend this painting (of Irises!) for a bit of time. It was 2:00pm and I made a deal with myself that I’d commit fifteen minutes and see what happened.
Meditating with Art
Following Shannon’s instructions, I took a meditative seat and let myself settle. I counted ten breaths and rested my gaze on Mr. Monet’s garden. Immediately I thought: how do I proceed? Should I be systematic? Should I work my way up or down or side to side or just see where I landed?
I took a few more breaths and just let myself take it in. A few of my thoughts:
Where does this path lead? What happens if I take it?
Every so often a crowd would assemble in front of the painting (in my fifteen minutes, hundreds of people passed through). As they entered my field of vision, superimposed in front of the garden, it seemed they were on the path as well.
Of course a quote manifests in my mind that is tangentially related to Oprah:
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
― Alice Walker, The Color Purple
The upward strokes, the bursts of colour, the energy.
The spiralling down into the path – suddenly it seems darker and menacing somehow.
Everything softer and quicker and more circular. Is this part unfinished? The naked canvas reminds me that this is a man’s creation.
What was beyond the path? What was the source of the light.
I had been there over half the time I allocated. I tried to open up more of my senses.
What was the sound of the painting? What did Monet hear? What would I hear in such a place? Were there sounds of children playing? Were there birds chirping away?
Was it warm? Did a breeze blow through the trees and the flowers?
Why was there a little speck of white in this one spot? What did Monet see there?
I had spent fifteen minutes. Of course my mind had wandered but each time I came back I was taken into another world and another moment in time. Monet’s vision became mine. Could he teach me to see my world? Could this practice be my new meditation? Art and meditation went beautifully together for me.
I retreated to the cafe and my notebook to mull it over. I knew I’d be back for more.
To try this practice yourself, read Shannon Stephens’s article.