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Mindfulness in the Museum

Can mindfulness provide a new perspective on art?

Steve Martin, the celebrated comedian and playwright, is the curator of a stunning new exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts entitled, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris. Mr. Martin also has an original way to appreciate art. He and his wife sit down in front of a painting, relaxing with a glass of wine, and watch it like a TV show, enjoying it, talking about it, and finding new things to see. While we can’t take wine into an art museum, we can find new ways to enhance our understanding of art, bringing a greater depth of awareness to what we see. Mindfulness is a practice that isn’t usually associated with museums, but maybe it should be. Not only can it help us calm and focus the mind, it can also help us see more clearly and creatively.

Kristen Hoskins, Manager of Lectures and Courses at the MFA, and I (a lapsed artist and art historian) brainstormed about new ways to help people learn about art and take advantage of museums. We recently created a workshop called Mindfulness in the Galleries where we planned to invite participants into the galleries to learn about the life and work of an artist, practice mindfulness together, and then sit in front of paintings to sketch, dream, or find inspiration. We would then reconvene to discuss our experience. We didn’t want to use one of the Asian Galleries, replete with Buddhist images, but following the development of mindfulness in the West, we wanted something secular and accessible to all. In a stroke of inspiration, Kristen suggested the Harris show.

Harris, an iconic figure in his native Canada, is virtually unknown in the US. His color-saturated landscapes of icebergs, mountains, glaciers, snow and sky place him in the company of his American contemporaries, Georgia O’Keefe, Arthur Dove, and Edward Hopper. The MFA, under its new director Matthew Teitelbaum, has used the show as an opportunity for creative and dynamic interchange, creating a lively and fascinating conversation on art, museums, and what makes a successful exhibition together with Steve Martin, writer Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker, and the Canadian artist Eric Fischl. You can watch on UTube,

In an innovative use of the gallery space, the curators invited choreographer Robert Binet and dancer Spencer Hack to perform “Lake Maligne,” an original dance inspired by Harris’s majestic images. This dance mirrored the forms and dynamic flow of the painting, interpreting, embodying, and elaborating on the mood, light, composition, and spirit of the paintings.

Thus, the stage was set to keep innovating. Gopnik, with his usual eloquence and insight, noted that while Harris’s work is devoid of human content, he invests what would commonly be seen as a wasteland with emotional intensity and intimacy. And while nothing in the work is organic, you can feel the mountains pulsating with life. As a psychologist and mindfulness teacher, I wondered if I could help people resonate with these works. Bringing together the evocative and thought-provoking comments from Martin, Gopnik, and Fischl, I created the following mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness Practice

  • Let yourself arrive. Letting go of the process of getting here, the traffic, the road noise. Just let yourself settle.
  • Take a few breaths to settle, relax, enjoy.
  • In most meditations we close the eyes. Here, please keep them open, becoming aware of the color around you. Let your gaze be soft.
  • Listen to sounds around you. We are in a museum, not a meditation hall. Noise is part of the experience. No need to push it away.
  • This is your time to slow down, relax, look deeply. No rush.
  • Keeping the gaze soft, become aware of your peripheral vision. See from the corners of your eyes.
  • When you are ready, position yourself in front of painting, looking with soft gaze. No need to name objects—this is a tree, an iceberg, a mountain, just notice the light, the mood, the composition. Let yourself connect with the work in whatever manner feels comfortable.
  • Let yourself receive color, light, shape. Breathe it in.
  • Listen to the painting. As Eric Fischl commented, “All paintings are alive. They talk to you. Listen.”
  • Perhaps explore the forms with your body, allow yourself to move in response to the work if movement comes.
  • Bring all your senses to this—listening, seeing, moving, breathing with it.
  • From this place of receptivity, sketch, dream, contemplate.

After a half-hour of sitting in front of the paintings, we came back together. There were no rules in the exercise. Some people wrote, some sketched, wrote music, or moved from painting to painting, settling into the observation of one work.

What intrigued me the most when we discussed the experience was that for many participants, the two-dimensional picture space enclosed in a frame opened up to become a three-dimensional world. Some felt that they could enter the scene that Harris created, feeling the wind, hearing the waves of the water, smelling the cold, fresh air. People talked about experiencing the work from the inside out—a very different experience for most.

Many of the participants were artists and felt that the mindfulness practice helped them relax and see the paintings (and their own sketches) with fresh eyes. One person, due to a limited selection of pencil colors, ending up using orange to sketch Harris’s paintings, which utilize a predominantly blue palette. Working with a complementary color allowed her, as a musician, to see patterns and a rhythm she hadn’t noticed in the work.

One participant had what psychologist Abraham Maslow might call a “peak experience.” In looking at a painting of Lake Superior, she noticed how the forms, shapes, and colors connected with other paintings in the room, and how this linked to works in adjoining galleries. Sketching the form of a tree in the foreground, she began to feel a sense of life in her body, as well as a sense of joy, tuning into what critics have seen as an ecstatic quality in Harris’s art. Perhaps it was a glimpse of what the Zen masters call the inter-relatedness of all things.

While we can’t provide you with a glass of wine, this practice can help you look at the world in a new way and with a fresh perspective. And the practice need not be limited to a museum—try it when you are sitting or walking outdoors, or enjoying a perfect spring day.

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.