Art & Mindfulness Evolutionary Tools for the 21st Century?

From "The Mindful Artist Arcana: Creative Alchemy and Mindful Art Practices" 2019 - A series of articles by Roseline de Thelin, Multi Media Artist, Creativity Coach & Mentor, Expressive Arts Teacher & Art Therapist.

Imagine if artistic expression could be reclaimed as everyone’s birthright to give us new ways to adapt and evolve in the 21st century! Could art & mindfulness help us find new answers to the challenges of our time?

Art has been our natural way to tell the story of our relationship with the world since the dawn of civilization. Art is a mirror of who we are, of our perceptions, and of our consciousness. Art is also a place where we push boundaries and explore new territories.

The world population is growing exponentially, our sustainability is endangered, and the ecological damages of our civilization are becoming more and more alarming. The computerized management of data and the World Wide Web have transformed our communication and entire organization in the last 30 years. The development of artificial intelligence, block chains, nanotech, genetics, intricately combined with the use of computerized data and algorithms are pushing us towards the brink of further and faster structural and societal changes.

The speed is exhilarating yet utterly scary and stressful for us to keep up with. Globalization, isolation, connections, disconnections, and interconnectedness are pulling us together and apart in this spiral of changes.

As we try to maximize control, results and efficiency, the level of complexity, incertitude and unpredictability is increasing as fast as the speed of change. As if the more we are trying to control the world, the more our own creations might get out of control!

How can we adapt to these exponential changes?
Is creativity an answer?

Creativity is on everybody’s lips nowadays. We need creativity in business, creativity at school, creativity in our lives. Yet when I look at the world we humans have created I feel creativity is both our gift and our curse. Can we keep using our human creative gift to endlessly produce more ideas, products, and “stuff” to consume, regardless of consequences?

What we really need is to become aware of who we are as creators and practice what I call “mindful creativity.”

Mindfulness finds its origin in ancestral eastern spiritual traditions and is now reaching more and more people. In an environment in which our nervous system gets overcharged and over-activated, the practice of mindfulness offers an effective way to reduce stress and self-regulate. The practice of mindfulness is also an opportunity to watch the phenomena of conscious experience in all its intricate layers. As we observe the inner play of our thoughts, habits, and patterns we eventually shift our perceptions of reality towards a more extended consciousness that includes body, emotions, thoughts, spirit, subject, and object—a consciousness that is more aware of the interconnectedness of all things.

Phenomenology and mindfulness are similar in the way that they invite us to become conscious of the fullness, variety, and transiency of experience within the stream of consciousness. Above is a scan of the brain that shows the extended activity of consciousness during meditation practice.

Now if artistic expression provides us with a symbolic mirror of who we are as creator, bridging artistic expression with mindfulness offers a wonderful opportunity to experience mindfulness in action as we watch ourselves using our sacred human gift of creators. This is the essence of the phenomenological schools of art therapies such as Gestalt Art therapy and the Expressive Arts.

Artistic expression provides us with such a safe playground where we can experience ourselves as creators. What I propose is to make these practices available for a larger public longing for the creative aliveness of artistic expression grounded in mindful presence.

Let's explore further why the practice of the arts can offer some essential and powerful ways to expand our consciousness:

THE SENSORY PERCEPTIONS OF THE ARTIST

The brain has a tendency to evaluate, anticipate, and extrapolate the present experience from the conditioning of past experiences, leaving us with only a limited and conditioned way of perceiving reality. Mindfulness’ first aim is to free ourselves from such limitation as we cultivate a state of open presence and detailed observation of our senses perceptions.

Think of the ear of the musician who distinguishes slight changes in notes and harmonics, being able to perfectly fit within an orchestra; or the eyes of the painter seeing the subtle details of contrast, forms, lines, colours and compositions; or the dancer, aware of micro movements in every part of the body. The artist is able to move easily from extreme details to a vision of the whole.

When aspiring artists come to my workshops they often feel that they lack technical skills. The first skill they mostly need to develop is the art seeing. They need to shift from their habitual reduced way of seeing to a more refined and expanded way of looking and seeing.

The practice of any artistic discipline naturally develops our sensory apparatus, and when we bring mindfulness and presence to these practices we are able to experience a much more refined and expanded way of perceiving and processing the details our experience yet keep a vision of the whole. At a time when we are flooded with information and data, the way of the mindful artist can help us use our full sensory apparatus to process and filter without loosing track of the whole.

PLAYFULNESS AND FUNCTIONAL LEARNING

Play is the most natural and functional way for humans to learn. Jean Piaget (1962) was the first psychologist to view play as the most essential way for a child’s intelligence to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically.

In play there is no pressure for results — only the joy of being immersed in the experience. This is the best way to try out, explore, discover, and acquire functional learning. Most innovation and discovery emerge accidentally and while exploring with no fixed goal.

Again, when the brain is programed to achieve a fixed result, the chances that something new will be discovered are dramatically reduced. Just look at a child painting without the conditioning of what is right or wrong and you will for sure get inspired.

In a society where results and efficiency are demanding so much of us, we need exploratory playtime to open ourselves to unexpected possibilities and grow out of the box.

THE WONDER OF AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE

An aesthetic experience is felt as an arousing of all our senses in response to nature, works of art or other objects of wonders. In aesthetic experience we are fully engaged and focused, there is a deep feeling of unity with what is arousing us, be it a simple of sunset, or a piece of music, or a painting.

Aesthetic experience is a form of peak experience which, as defined by psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1964), is “like a rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experience that generates an advanced form of perceiving reality, and is even mystic and magical in its effect upon the experimenter.”

This is a deeply transformative experience in which we can have extra-ordinary revelations. We lift ourselves above our daily perceptions, we get the bigger picture, receive visions and insights. Again,we can process a much larger amount of information all at once and make sense of it.

Aesthetic experience is at the source of all arts. This is where the artist finds his or her well of inspiration. Everyone can have an aesthetic experience. It is part of being human. Yet in a busy world we need to make ourselves available to it. Cultivating our capacity and availability to receive this kind of experience is a way of extending our intelligence beyond the limitation of the rational mind. These are the kind of experiences that can help shift us into new level of consciousness.

NOT KNOWING AND INNOVATION

One of the most annoying things about the mind is that it has a natural and understandable tendency to provide us with yesterday’s solution to answer the challenge of today. The brain wants to serve us well and will immediately bring forth what it already knows. This is a real limitation when it comes to discovering innovative ways to go about our lives.

The fertile void of not knowing is one of the essential principles of Gestalt psychology. Gestalt theory believes that new understandings (or new gestalts) emerge from the emptiness of being and that such experiences when becoming conscious naturally build our trust in the natural creative flow of life and changes. In fact, Gestalt psychology uses the arts as tools of exploration to foster perceptions shifts and discoveries.

Drama and improvisation offer exhilarating opportunities to experience how the most unexpected resources can show up within us. Consider the joy and aliveness that the painter feels when, after a period of creative chaos and not knowing, the work of art starts to shape and emerge; or the magical moment when musicians are improvising and then come together into fresh and unplanned harmony.

Developing our capacity to navigate the unknown with an attitude of open and mindful curiosity, trusting that new possibilities will emerge, could be one of our best skills in a highly unpredictable context.

HARVESTING MEANING AND INSIGHTS

The search for meaning in our existence is an important and universal human need, a vital part of how we evaluate the worth of our own lives: It needs to be cherished and nurtured.

Artistic expression, when associated with mindfulness, provides us with a mirror to see ourselves as creators. Mindful observation of our creative process is a rich experiential ground to harvest meaning and insight, and transfer it to our lives. It also becomes a place where we can try out new boundaries and push old ones to their limit.

This is the purpose of the mindful artist who becomes able to tap into the creative source of all possibilities for new insights. Life becomes the canvas and your choices the brushes and paints …