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Art as Meditation: Ways to Peace and Awareness through Painting

By Susan Squellati florence and Patty Van Dyke
ART TIMES October 2006

It’s an ancient
practice known to work wonders on the human body, mind, and emotions. It can lower your heart rate, reduce your stress and energize your spirit. Millions from around the world incorporate it into their daily lives. It’s meditation.

Most of the world’s religions practice some form of it. Christians call it centering prayer,” or the “Jesus prayer;” Jewish mystics have many forms of it through the Kabala; Buddhists call it “sitting meditation,” “mindfulness;” and Muslims are called to prayerful meditation five times a day. But for many of us, no matter how spiritual or intent we are to participate in this age-old discipline, one constant seems to stand in the way—the inability to purposefully stop our busy lives and just be with our own self.

If you are one of these people, you’re not alone. Most of us rush through the day trying to multi-task. The inability to simply “settle down” hinders us from becoming aware of our own breath and our own body—two important components of meditation.

However, there is an alternative. It’s through painting. Whether you consider yourself an artist or have never touched a paintbrush, anyone can do it. Below are the 10 relations between art and meditation that can be practiced through painting.
1) In preparing to paint, get rid of all outside distractions. Remove yourself from the telephone, T.V., the computer, the dog, the dishes. In meditation, it is a balance between active engagement and conscious release.  We make time and space for ourselves, but are not too hard on ourselves. Be ready to begin.

2) Shake loose of your “worrying monkey mind” and focus on what you want to paint. In meditation, taking a minute to be in our body and focus on our breathing is necessary.  It is good to affirm our intention and be clear about what we are going to do. 

3) Give up control. Painting outdoors is a good way to achieve this through its quieting and nurturing atmosphere. You can settle down and work freely, while acknowledging your inability to control the sun casting its shadows on your paper or the bee landing on the flower you are painting. In meditation, hindrances are acknowledged as a passing cloud and then we move forward.

4) Try not to judge. Don’t worry about how the painting is coming along. For example, painting in watercolors is completely unpredictable as colors run into each other. Letting go is sometimes the key to your best work. As in meditation, rather than trying to control our busy minds, we acknowledge it and let it go, take a step back and return to our focus—our breath! 

5) Be the painting. In noticing the colors, shapes, textures and the light and dark of a tree, you may feel a part of the tree. In meditation, paying attention to the object of our focus, our breath, or symbol, we merge with it.  By painting or meditating on it, we know it in a new way.

6) Accept your mistakes. Become surprised by them. Keep the brush moving. In meditation, there is no judgment; we just continue to breathe, letting thoughts and feelings, however surprising they may be, move up and through. 

7) There is no one way to paint. Creativity is thinking out of the box. There are many tricks to creating effects when painting, like scraping weeds out of the paint with a palette knife. There are many ways to meditate:  walking meditation, Sufi dancing, use of a manta or symbol—everyone can find the method that allows them to center, to renew.

8) Acknowledge repetition. Kneading bread, stitching, weaving and painting are all repetitive activities that drop us into a timeless zone. In meditation, we lose track of time, brain waves change, and we emerge renewed with a shift in perspective. A little detachment from the ever-present concerns of our daily life has been created.

9) Step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes when looking at what you’re painting from a distance, you will see something different; something new. You may be seeing a part of your essence, what you really brought to the painting. In meditation we may connect with ourselves in ways previously unknown to us, connect with the object of our meditation, connect with the larger whole.  We are changed.

10) Enjoy this time you spend with yourself; it is uniquely satisfying and fun to spend time in the creative process. You come away refreshed and renewed. You have been with another part of yourself—a part that is more accepting and free. In meditation, we also return renewed and refreshed and develop confidence in our ability to change by practicing regularly.  Each painting or meditation session means taking account of how we are and creatively using what we have to slowly move to a more aware and positive space.  We experience ourselves and our world in a more compassionate and connected way.  As the mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”

(Susan Florence Author/Artist  www.susanflorence.com; Patty Van Dyke Artist/Art Therapist www.pattyvandyke)

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