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Art & Mindfulness

Updated: Oct 5, 2023


Le Dejeuner Sur L’herbe by Pablo Picasso
Le Dejeuner Sur L’herbe by Pablo Picasso

Art is increasingly being drawn into conversations around the practice of mindfulness because art is, so the argument goes, essentially a mindfulness activity. The idea being that since the creation of art, for the most part, requires a degree of focused attention and awareness of what is happening in the moment, it therefore fits the definition of mindfulness.


But does it?


As a lifelong artist and practitioner of mindfulness for the past thirty years or so, I would say unequivocally, that art is not a mindfulness activity. But it could be. There are significant differences between the two that need to be highlighted and addressed as well as significant similarities.


Is Art A Mindfulness Activity?


Art most certainly isn’t always mindful. During the creation of a piece of work, whether that be a painting, a drawing, a musical piece, a piece of film, or poetry, there is usually, deeply intertwined within that process, quite a lot of judgement, analysis, and assessment. This left-brain conceptual activity, if not always essential, is certainly a prerequisite for the production of many pieces of artistic output. Human beings are conditioned this way. It’s what the mind does. We analyse and assess all the time.


Mindfulness is an activity that certainly requires a level of focused awareness of the moment, just as when a piece of art is being created. But it’s an awareness, stripped of judgement, analysis, speculation, planning, or any other conceptual activities of the mind. It’s just pure empty awareness.


When paying attention during the creation of a piece of art, we don’t do so purely for the sake of paying attention. It’s done to actively encourage conceptual (as well as perceptual) activity for creative and aesthetic reasons that have little to do with the functioning of the mind and awareness of its internal processes.


It’s also the case that a piece of art can be created as a form of escape from the struggles of life. In this case art starts to become therapy, but this is the antithesis of a mindfulness activity. And art is not therapy, though it can be therapeutic. Likewise, mindfulness is not therapy, but again can be therapeutic.


Mindfulness is a practice that exists to lead a person to a deep and profound understanding of their own true nature and everything else that exists in this dualistic universe, ultimately leading to a cessation of the concept of ‘I’ altogether and in fact an abandonment of even the concept of ‘mind’. Art can also lead a practitioner to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them and their relationship to it, but not in the same way that mindfulness does. Art tends to stay firmly embedded within the dualistic universe, whereas mindfulness aims to transcend it.


Critical to any mindfulness practice is that it should be done with conscious intent. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness summed this up perfectly:


“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”


‘On purpose’ and ‘non-judgementally’ are key elements of a good mindfulness practice. Awareness is not conducted ‘on purpose’ in the production of art, it's simply the way artistic creation operates, and it’s mostly done on autopilot. Judgement of course is also pretty much critical to most artistic activity.



In the State of Flow

March of the Jabberwocky by Steve Gooch (detail)
March of the Jabberwocky by Steve Gooch (detail)

If you’ve ever seen videos of Pablo Picasso painting on glass or in his studio working, you will see a master at work, totally at one with the brush that glides easily over the surface. Here is a master of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow state (Csikszentmihalyi is often credited with coining the term, but actually it’s been in use in the art community for, well, forever).


What you see in watching Picasso work, or other artists of a similar calibre, is someone in flow; totally immersed in the activity of creation. Given Picasso’s ability with a brush, it would appear that there is little or no judgement taking place as the brush glides from one form into another in a state of acceptance of whatever appears on the canvas or glass before him. But judgement there is. It may not be overtly obvious, but to reach this level of oneness with the process of creation requires an internalising of the process of analysis to such a deep level that it functions automatically, often from a subconscious level.


What Picasso is not doing, is painting as a mindfulness activity. He’s lost in his work, in a state of flow, because it’s required by the work. Once the work or the activity in that moment is completed, the flow is gone. It’s worth noting that when an artist is in a state of flow, there can often be a complete loss of awareness of the passing of time. There can be a loss of awareness of what is happening in the surrounding environment, and this again is the antithesis of mindfulness.


The Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Art


Certainly, art is well documented to be able to create in the practitioner some of the same benefits that are expected from a solid mindfulness practice. Benefits such as resolving stress, depression, anxiety, burnout, etc. are the purview of art therapy, however, not art. But relief from stress and anxiety etc., are not the function of mindfulness and they are not the function of art. They are by-products.


Bringing Mindfulness to Art


Can we use mindfulness in art to enhance the creative process? Yes, we can. By bringing mindfulness to a creative process, we can deliberately move away from the process of judgement and analysis and simply allow a piece to unfold within the broad expanse of our awareness. This can take some doing, as most artists are trained early on to bring their critical and analytical faculties to bear on their creative work and at the same time to balance them with broad acceptance of whatever unfolds. It’s a delicate balancing act of moving constantly between conceptual and perceptual activity.


It's not easy to abandon the conceptual mind and the roads that it takes us down. Mindfulness can help us do that. Will it improve our creative work? No. but it might help us to trust ourselves more and might bring more clarity and deeper awareness to the creative act.


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Thaleà Ξ.
Thaleà Ξ.
Aug 29, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wonderful dear Steve!

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Steve Gooch
Steve Gooch
Aug 30, 2023
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Thank you :)

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MS S
MS S
Aug 14, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Impressive 👍

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Agatha Ξ.
Agatha Ξ.
Aug 14, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Amazing blog. Always enjoying reading your blogs.

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Steve Gooch
Steve Gooch
Aug 30, 2023
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Thanks Agatha :)

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