Art has long been recognized as a tool for self-knowledge, but it is increasingly recognized as a contemplative practice. It can be used simply to observe the way your mind processes information; as a meditation for quieting and focusing the mind and emotions; but it also has potential for increasing one’s awareness of the “lived experience, as it is lived.”
In my drawing-based research last year, I began the early workshops with very simple line exercises, basically to loosen participants up before moving on to more demanding exercises and get a feel for the tools. These exercises were not central to my data collection, just “stretching” exercises before the main “workout”.
Participants began with drawing a vertical straight line repeatedly. I asked them to fill the whole page with line after line, but each time getting a little slower and slower, lighter and softer. I asked them to imagine the lines coming out of infinity onto the page, and then continuing on past the paper, in long, slow gestures. As they did this, I noticed people becoming more relaxed, but also more still in their bodies, more focussed in their attention.
Some participants later said that they as they slowed down, they could feel themselves beginning to flow and breathe more easily. Others experienced a sense of lightness. In contrast to many art classes I have run, the level of engagement in the tasks was high within the first few minutes of beginning to draw. So I decided to open my subsequent research workshops with some contemplative drawing exercises. Since people were making time especially to attend these one-off workshops, and sometimes travelling some distance, I knew they might arrive in a quite preoccupied state, so wanted to help them let go of their concerns and focus quickly, by using some of the techniques described above. But instead of simple straight and curved lines I chose some classic forms from Ancient Greek and Celtic Art: the spiral, the lemniscate and the knot. The 5th century philosopher Proclus called such forms the Ars Lineandi (Art of the Line), the “recaptured memory of the invisible ideas of the soul” (Proclus, in James, 2006). By using these, I hoped to tap into some archetypal forms already living in their consciousness, easily recognized, so that people would feel comfortable through familiarity, not wary of the unfamiliar.
I expanded the form drawing exercises to include a little preparatory beholding exercise, where participants were asked to first contemplate the form (I gave each person a copy of each form) in a sequence of steps, similar to the one described here, before putting aside the copy and drawing it. But not from memory: from the living experience of the movement of the form within them, which they had built up in the beholding steps. They then drew the forms many times, first focusing on the movement, later on balancing the form or changing it, but all quite slowly and attentively. They spent about 30 minutes on this task, much than I originally intended.
In the post-workshop discussion, many people talked more about the effect of these preparatory contemplative exercises on them, than the subsequent experiential and creative tasks that form the core of my research data. Most of the participants had done a little of this sort of drawing work before, but without the contemplative element. Previously, they had focused on simply getting the form accurate, whereas I asked them to live into the experience of the movement.
On the results
Some said enjoyed taking a contemplative approach much more than just trying to get the form balanced and correct. One elaborated: “the lemniscate is balancing, it’s always a great effect on me, just automatically tunes me into a flow and a breathing and a balance and just this rhythm …”
On the process
Other common experiences concerned becoming conscious of the way their drawing experience was reflected in their bodies, particularly in their breathing, the way the different dynamics the different forms started to harmonize with the breathing ad vice versa. One said: “it’s like a run-up – I slow at the top and come down .. isn’t that like the in-breath and out-breath?”. And another responded with: “when you said we should experience it within us, I sat with it when we were doing it, and I had a sense of this lemniscate going from the tip of my toes to the top of my head and crossing in this (indicates heart) area”.
On being attentive
The discussion then moved to discussing the benefits being rhythmical, but not repetitive or mechanistic, in the way we draw, and the difference between these qualities. The problem with mechanistic movement was of special interest, because so often mechanistic movement is associated with unconscious habits and behaviours – the hand becomes practiced at the action that produces the form, and the you suddenly find as you’re drawing, your thoughts are miles away. But your hand is still moving round the form, disengaged from your attention!
We debated whether you really needed to remain 100% attentive, in order to prevent the hand/body movement becoming repetitive and mechanistic while doing the drawings. Trying to balance the form with the movement, while always maintaining the rhythmical aspect and never letting the mind wander – several people commented that they found it very absorbing to do, but also tiring, though in a good way. A few even felt fresher and more focussed compared to when they first arrived at the workshop, especially if they had arrived stressed. They felt this was because this contemplative approach to drawing really brought them to living in the moment, of simply living with the line and movement as it created the form, as it happened, and consequently felt more together with themselves. That 100% focus, of being right in the moment, could be energizing, but also “oh my goodness, I’m drawing on forces I don’t normally draw upon” said one.
So being attentive, or mindful, was seen as being both a requirement and an outcome of drawing in this way. It could be energising but also make you feel more tired, but in a relaxed, stress-free way. Only one person felt stressed by the experience, because they had difficulty with drawing the lemniscate from memory, but found that if she spent more time in the initial stages of the beholding exercise i.e. with observing and tracing the form in the air, then it became easier. Curiously, when she tried lemniscate again at the end of the workshop, after and hour of freeform drawing, she found it much easier to find the balance in the form.
On dismissing the inner critic
Perhaps the most recurring experience to come up in both post-workshop discussions concerned silencing the inner critic. Participants noticed that when they became more fully attentive to the present, their inner critic, the one who made them feel insecure or unsure about what they were doing, this critic had disappeared. As one participant said: “it takes me out of my head and for me, I really experience being in the moment; and I notice that the critic is not there. Like, even though I want to be looking at what other people are doing, even though that want is there, I’m not drawn to that.” And: “it’s a good way, where you can be in this moment and you can let your critic go, and sit there and enjoy but at the same time let yourself go and keep experiencing …”
So not only did the contemplative drawing help focus the attention, but by doing so, participants experienced a heightened sense of living in the present. Their reflective critic, that part of us that seems to stand outside ourselves, observing, separating us from the activity, this observer simply disappeared into the movement and rhythm. In a sense, they became closer to being “at one” with the activity. For them, it was a kind of flow state – not the creative flow state described in earlier posts, but a kind of mindfulness-in-flow, with a heightened sense of the moment, of the present.
It’s interesting to see the potential for using drawing to develop attentiveness, or mindfulness, as it is popularly known today. It’s certainly given me ideas for the future, to integrate more beholding with doing, when teaching visual arts or lecturing on art history, rather than treating them separately. By combining practice with theory, through contemplative practice, both forms of learning could be enhanced.
(This article has also been published on another blog, in a slightly different form)
James, V. 2006, Language of the Line: A Reinvented Art-form of the Waldorf Schools, Journal for Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner Education, Volume 8, Number 2