Art and Mindfulness

By Dr Jeffrey Adams

jeff jammin at the beach 2002

The violinist sits with a focused look on her face as a complicated and beautiful melody manifests itself through her body, fingers and instrument. Some passages require intense concentration on the process. In other moments her eyes are gently closed and her well-trained fingers move effortlessly on the fret board as though she is just a conduit for her art, the manifestation.

The painter looks on as her brush strokes move feverishly across the canvas. At times she is absorbed with managing the mechanical minutiae of each movement, the process; but again, often she watches as though the creative design manifests on canvas almost without the need for her presence at all. She is absorbed.

Art, like every aspect of life, can be done mindfully. And art can be an expression of mindfulness. There is a distinction, but it is subtle. In both of the above scenarios the well-trained artist, having spent years training bodies and tools (or instruments) to do the mechanical process, are at times able to watch the creative process unfold through them, almost without deliberate or conscious input or interference. This might be called the manifestation, or “art made manifest”. Put another way, the artist has become a clear passage through which a creative force can manifest in the real world. Some call it “being in the zone”. For even the most talented and practiced artists it’s an experience occurring only episodically, but is often described as a state approaching bliss or even nirvana. Mindfulness can be present in everyday life. For the artist (the “long suffering artist”) it occurs through the journey of mastering the bodily, mechanical process of their art form; and, then occurs as manifest in the world as art.

As a Psychiatrist and an artist I have been asked to write to you about “Art and Mindfulness” for the Visual Emporium Newsletter. It is an honour.

Let me define “Mindfulness”. It was in the East where many of the concepts of mindfulness evolved. It was a way of being and living rather than a treatment or intervention. Western therapists such as Jon Kabat-Zinn brought facets of mindfulness in to our busy Western world decades ago and re-applied them to our very different minds and lives. Sadly, we rarely have the time to sit quietly in a forest every day and wander back to our chores when we feel like it. Nor can most of us withdraw to the top of a mountain for five years to ponder our navels in meditation, seeking (or worse, trying) to attain “Buddhahood”. But neither of these things are required of us in this world of deadlines, concrete, bustling traffic, disgruntled partners and the morning battle to get our children to school! “What can be done in 10,000 breaths can be done in one breath” (10,000 was often the number attributed to being all the things of the world; i.e. “The 10,000 Things”). Meditation and other mindfulness exercises have made their way into orthodox Western psychiatry and into the practice of wellbeing. Mindfulness is not just a therapy for the psychologically distressed (although it is certainly used in therapy), it is a way of being that any and all of us can practice to enhance our lives, regardless of our degree of wellbeing.

In the modern context, in mindfulness we aim to be present in the moment we are currently in, and more. But we are not present just to “stop and smell the roses”! That would be simple hedonism, living only for pleasure in the present without regard for consequences or for the greater universe around us. Rather, it is what we consciously choose to do with the present moment which is important. It is a way of accepting the present moment as it is, without judgment, but with our full attention and an ever present choice as to how to act (if action is required at all). It is a path through life and art is one of its most beautiful manifestations.

The process of becoming present is far more difficult than it might seem. There are a myriad of past and future moments that draw our attention away from what we are doing, now, in this moment (including the artist’s doing). But neither is mindfulness about having a still mind, although on the occasions this occurs it is a beautiful thing. Forgive the cliché, but it is the journey, not the destination, where mindfulness changes and enriches us. It is more about accepting that the present moment, whether it is pleasurable or otherwise, is perfect just as it is.

Further, we endeavour to make each moment meaningful by instilling in it our own values. In Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (in his 1984 postscript) he gives the analogy of our lives as a movie film made up of a series of individual images. Each image is analogous to a moment of our life. Imagine that in order for us to understand our life we must understand each individual moment, just as if to understand a movie we must understand each of its constituent pictures first (you can flick to the end if you like, but you’ll never fully appreciate the movie!). In other words, we must be present in the moment (or present to witness the pictures of the movie) in order to make any sense of it as a whole. However, Frankl is careful not to propose that there is any one single deep meaning to life or even that any individual life has an important, whole, singular meaning. He merely points out in his beautiful analogy that the true meaning of our lives (or the imaginary movie) is to be found in each of the tiny fragments that compose it. And thus I return to the idea of being present, but meaningfully and by choice. In all the available readings on mindfulness, for me Frankl’s small and beautiful book describes mindfulness in the most divine way (long before the word “mindfulness” was ever construed!). Frankl was a Jewish Psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II. He made the conscious choice to accept the things he could not control (in this case his very liberty, being confined as he was) but to choose his attitude towards it. He also chose to give meaning to the things he could control (e.g. his attitude to confinement and the manner in which he utilised his moments while so confined). Within the restricted realm of his control he chose to act or to not act, and how.

When Ilia Chidzey, the founder of Visual Emporium, asked me to write an article on art and mindfulness I was thrilled. As well as having gone through the rigor of medical training I am also a musician. On very few occasions I have experienced moments where a creative force seemed to flow through me rather than from me. This has usually occurred during periods of my life when I have been able to spend months devoted to practicing my instruments (doing the process). This is no mean feat for a doctor as my work hours are demanding. It would probably be more common if I practiced more (to keep the process trained, keen, fluid and automatic). It is a blissful state that an artist sometimes finds, regardless of their medium or genre. The closer one allows the present moment to be while working, undiluted by thoughts and distractions outside the present, the more rich and rewarding is the work (the process) and the art (the manifestation). American psychologist Abraham Maslow might have described these rare moments as “peak experiences”. He is famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs” (1943) and theories of Self-Actualisation (“… the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are essentially fulfilled and the “actualization” of the full personal potential takes place”; and, “the full realization of one’s potential, and of one’s true self”; is this what art can do for us?).

Let us look at art from a different and perhaps unexpected perspective. Anthropologists have proposed for several centuries that the onset of music and art (painting in particular) historically defines the moment mankind became “conscious” or “sentient”. Is it the ability to create art, to tap into a creative force that is beyond our ego-self, which separates us from non-conscious or non-sentient beings? Please do not consider me ‘speciesist’ here, but we must look to our own magnificently complex brains with their infinitely complex minds to discover who we are and (if we care) when we became truly human. Logically, for that matter, what is it to be human? The final beautiful thing about mindfulness is that it does not demand perfection from us. It does not demand perfect divinity or other states of presence which are often actively sought in religions, doctrines and philosophies. Nevertheless these same thought-groups almost all engage in forms of meditation and other exercises to heighten states of alertness, awareness and presence to bring about joy and a feeling of wellbeing. In contrast, mirroring ancient Taoism in particular, mindfulness seeks nothing and requires nothing.

I return now to art specifically. As a musician, allow me use this as my example (thus my use of ‘he’ rather than ‘she’). At first, the student picks up his instrument in a clumsy manner. He must learn to train his fingers to move mechanically in a manner that produces a beautiful sound. The practice of this has been the demise of many a nearby tortured ear (often long suffering family members or parents). But with time the sound improves. As years go by, the mechanical processes of using the instrument become less and less important as they become automatic to the musician. There comes a time where the musician starts to experience moments where the body and fingers move with less deliberate input of thought and the individual can almost observe the creative product manifest itself through his body rather than from his body. However brief these moments are, they are beautiful. Music is transient and a lucky listener will be deeply moved before the notes echo into silence. Paint, however, will stand the test of time and we enjoy a painter’s moments of brilliance for centuries to come. When the process of applying the paint to the canvas becomes less dependent on deliberate process, the creative process is able to freely use the body to create itself. The artist can mindfully watch on as their art becomes manifest. It is its own form of meditation, just as sacred and beautiful as that performed by monks in distant monasteries.

I present to you a new vision of Psychiatry and a new generation of Psychiatrists who value things that are not necessarily perceived or understood by our five senses or even by any one universal theory. We are people of science and medicine but willingly engage with humanity in a warm way (“the couch” is a quaint historical oddity for many of us). It is enough to accept the wellbeing of our patients and the beauty of the art they produce when a mindful process of true presence occurs. Yes, art is often a part of mindfulness therapy. In the mentally unwell, patients are dragged away from the present moment by the most dire of thoughts, whether they be anxious, depressed or psychotic. I have seen the result of emersion in mindfulness therapy and what can be achieved. The positive effect on wellbeing can be remarkable.

As a final note, I am proud to make the observation that there is a disproportionate number of artists amongst doctors. I do not believe this to be a matter of intellect, but perhaps a consequence of an energetic, enquiring and willing mind, being common features between the physician and the artist. Further, the doctor sees life and death pass before him in a way most individuals do not experience in our sanitary modern world. It is an honour to sit with someone as they pass and try to comfort them, just as it is an honour to save a life. When I tell a friend or a patient that I am a doctor and I race motorcycles they look shocked and say I “should know better … how irresponsible … do you know how dangerous that is?”. I say in return that I could die falling down a set of steps or crossing the road; that I have seen how easily life can be taken away, so I shall live my life doing the things I love. I didn’t choose to ride motorcycles to be a daredevil, I choose it because I truly love it. And so I am captured in the moment by an experience I should not forsake; my life would be less rich without it. Further, whenever I possibly can, I intend to be present to enjoy every moment.

“Art for Art’s Sake” is enough. It evolves, changes, and also changes its creator. Mindfulness as a therapy is now a highly developed and orthodox approach in psychiatry. It has also been a life path for those seeking a higher level of wellbeing or consciousness for thousands of years.

Welcome to the present moment.

Dr Jeffrey Adams