How Do Art And Meditation Overlap?
A crash course overview of how to meditate while making art.
In this post, we'll go over how art and meditation should, in my humble opinion, become best friends. Then, we'll dive further into what exactly constitutes as art and learn a little more about the history and specifics of meditation. Not an artist? Not a meditator? Not a problem! This will give you a high level overview of the concepts.
Art and meditation have a lot in common. Artwork creation naturally embodies so many principles of meditation. It illuminates our being. It guides us to our senses. We feel our bodies as we move, and we come alive in the colors and textures of creating. We can soften to the way we are. We can open up to what is inside.
Both art and meditation allow a coming together of the inside world and the outside world. With art, we allow what’s inside to be expressed through images. In meditation, the outer world and inner world come together in the sense that we become more aware of both, and see them both as general happenings. Check out this guided meditation by Alan Watts for more on this!
Let’s expand on this. When creating art, and particularly with mindful art, we can work to let the painting stem from images or motions guided by our inner body or “soul”, for lack of a better term. As renowned art therapist Pat Allen says, we get into a space of “letting the painting paint itself.” We may not know why we are drawn to move or create in this way, but we are. So we can let ourselves have the inner world dictate the painting or drawing or creation. This inner world then is given form. It converges with the outer world. It doesn’t require an explanation or an analysis, but it comes into contact and then grows into this transient experience of inner and outer.
Meditation does the same. We go inward to get to know ourselves. We go inward so that we can better understand how we exist outside. We go in so we can serve those outside. We go in to become more empathetic, sympathetic, conscious and alive in the world outside.
To me, artwork creation and mediation are the playground of the metaphysical meeting the physical. And most importantly, we naturally find ourselves lost in that flow zone of simply being. The chatters of the thinking mind start to settle and our soul takes over.
Now you might be saying, wait, when I create my mind goes crazy, which happens too. But it doesn’t make it less of a meditation. Even in meditation our minds can go crazy. So when you hear the inner critic turn on or hear the inner resistance as you create, just as in meditation, you keep at the helm of noticing and observing and allowing your ship to ride onward into the waters of the artwork creation, letting the wandering praise or criticism to be merely tacking methods that may take you momentarily off course as you sail on.
Honestly, sometimes creating art can be downright infuriating. It can rob you of any patience you may feel. There have been so many times in my life when I’m making something and it makes me so, so upset and angry (and I’m not quick to anger, but boy can art get you there). When a piece doesn’t look the way I want it to, I get red hot with wanting to fix it or paint over it or destroy it.
More often than not, the anger doesn’t come from the act of creating itself, however. It comes from our thinking minds. The red hot stickiness of wanting to escape the process usually comes from our desire to control the outcome of the work. The work lies in letting go of the need to judge, manipulate and control (as HARD as this is, especially if you feel artistically apt and really want it to look a certain way).
It’s odd this doesn’t happen with other feel good things. Many of us still sing in the car alone even if we aren’t good, because it feels good to let that energy out and release some dopamine. Many of us still enjoy a sport even if we aren’t the best at it. There are so many activities that help us move energy, but for some reason with art, there is an added layer of challenge: the obsession with the end result.
This is why I love the combination. Art simultaneously turns on the ego mind, laying it over on top of an activity that could potentially help us eradicate the ego and get into the meditative flow. And that makes it the perfect way to practice meditation. It amplifies our inner dialogue and gives a chance to separate from that chatter and choose to get into more of a flow.
What is art?
Art is equally as illusive as meditation, and art is equally transcendent. But when we start to define these concepts...that's where it gets tricky. Perhaps my favorite explanation is from the world-famous stage designer, Es Devlin, who says “art is a transfer of energy.” That captures it best in my mind. Art brings the inside world out. It’s a release.
Some Googling will tell you art is, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Nice.
Art is common across all cultures and peoples all across history. We have been making art to decorate and elevate the importance of things, to ritualize, to pay homage, to feel, and express. To me, art is being. I won’t spend too much time here, because we can usually intuitively recognize art even if we can’t fumble the words together to define it.
Milton Glaser said, “Art at its fullest capacity makes us attentive. If you look at a work of art you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive.” He believes being moved to attentiveness is what constitutes art.
I love this definition and attempt to make sense of art. The concept of attention is so critical here. To me, art is the cultivating of human attention through creative expression. Art is letting energy out.
What is meditation?
Meditation, like art, is a practice that brings us into the now, expanding our vitality and lifting the fog of un-being. Or at the very least, it shines some sort of light so you can see that you are in fact in the fog. Meditation is a practice of being. It’s all about rooting us in the ever-arriving and ever-fleeting present moment.
The techniques used to do this range from visualization, mantras (a word or phrase repeated to help concentration, intention, and focus), counting beads, focusing on the breath, gongs, chanting and more. The idea is, after enough practice, we foster an ability to be with our existence at most times. But why would we need to practice existing?
Well, since you are a human, I’m sure you can feel the pulling forces of un-being. The emails, texts, bills, career plans, rumination, emotions, distractions and escapes that really strip us away from resting in the now. But the problem goes way further back. The brain requires training to come into being fully present because of our evolutionary programming that keeps us good at learning from past mistakes (don’t pet the caber-tooth) and anticipating future problems (when might that caber-tooth show up again). This state of learning and anticipating served us well, making us excellent survivors. This is all very easily understood intuitively, but worth mentioning contextually.
Today, this wiring still dictates our behavior, emotions and thoughts. The brain hasn’t changed all that much in the past couple thousand years. So we have these brains wired to learn from the past and anticipate the future and now they are being bombarded with so many things that pull us even further away from our present moments. We face anxieties of increasing rents in cities where opportunity lies, global climate fears, political tensions, and an overwhelming societal pressure that your worth is equivalent to your earning potential. These can honestly just be a big existential bummer. Yes, it’s good to make goals and plans. Yes, it is good to learn from our mistakes, but when we constantly live in these states that we aren’t fully in contact with in the moment, it diminishes our vitality. The thing is, we naturally find a space of equanimity when we can just sink into the moment. So here we are, trying to sit somewhere in silence and downloading apps to help us meditate. Makes sense when this noise is all that fills the outside and inside worlds. Even if some of these drawbacks to modernity may have incited a larger interest in meditation in the west, this practice of being, obviously, isn’t new.
Meditation is prehistoric and cross-cultural. Ancient India holds some of the first records of meditation as far back as 1500 BCE. This was outlined in the tradition of Vedantism in Hinduism. In this tradition, the truest self inside had to be the same and aligned with the truest highest godly truth outside. One’s identity was Atman and the identity of reality was Brahman. Through this spiritual path, one would awaken to this idea and be unified with the metaphysical, truly coming to realize the Brahman and the Atman as indistinguishable. In fact, the etymology of the word comes from Sanskrit “Advaita Vedanta”, which literally means “not-two". So unifying! Whole-y. If this stuff interests you, check out The Bhagavad Gita for a further read! Then check out The Dhammapada.
Later on, we see Taoism in China and Buddhism in India talking about meditation. Taoism, which translates to the teaching of the way in Chinese, is all about connecting to the source and the primordial and lasting oneness of everything. (You may have seen Daoism before, which is the same thing--just a different Romanization method of the Chinese language.) It’s about living in this harmony with “The Way” or the Tao, which basically happens when we don’t step too far into extremes and kind of just exist in a flow. In this religion, there tends to be an emphasis on action by inaction “wu-wei”, which means non-doing in Chinese. It’s about not over exerting or trying to force reality to be one way or another. A great analogy and wonderful read is the Tao of Pooh. Pooh Bear beautifully embodies this tradition in his pleasant moseying through life. It all makes sense that the concepts of meditation would naturally arise here, just existing and surrendering to that flow of The Way, without being totally apathetic. It’s that sweet spot middle ground of being without overly trying to be, if that makes sense.
What about Buddhism? Obviously over-simplifying here, but Buddhism is one of the largest religions. The religion holds philosophies imparted by The Buddha, which were revolutionary in saying that there isn’t one God or one group of people who can achieve the godly state of thinking; Buddhism says anyone is able to achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment is freeing yourself from suffering. But in order to get out of the rebirth and death cycles that bind humanity, you first have to come to know the four noble truths. These truths are (1.) that life is suffering (or dukkha), (2.) suffering is caused by our desires, (3.) you can get rid of your desires, and (4.) you can get rid of them through following the eight-fold path. In following the eight-fold path, you need to have right right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation—which is basically concentration and sometimes referred to as absorption (called Samādhi). In following this, one can achieve Nirvana, escaping the rebirth cycles. One also has the option of helping the poor saps on earth awaken to all this good stuff and become a Bodhisattva. Okay, cool. If you want to dive further into Buddhism I suggest reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh or Buddhism for Beginners by Thubton Chodron.
The origins of Yoga is even said to be designed to still the whirlpool of the mind in order to prepare oneself for entering meditation. I’m skipping over a lot of stuff (Pali Canon, The Silk Road spreading Buddhism/ Zen, and even ancient Judaism). If you want to dive deeper, google away my friend! But meditation continued in all of these places and grew and evolved some into prayer and some into more commonly thought of practices of meditation. Each having a little tweak or tradition or practice.
So look at that! I guess meditation isn’t a fad, and somehow existing has always been cool. And really, mindfulness is just fully existing with all of your concerted effort on each moment as it arrives.