Mindfulness Through Art: What It Is and What It Isn’t


“Mindfulness” is a common buzzword these days, but the concept is often misunderstood. From a secular and psychological view, mindfulness is about focusing attention and awareness to the present moment, integrating the mind and body to a focal point in the here and now with acceptance. There is a lot of research coming out on the benefits of mindfulness. Recent studies show that mindfulness can help to rewire thinking and behavioral patterns in the brain, create more ease and reduce tension, and even help with chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. In general, mindfulness can increase focus and a sense of presence in a person’s life.

Mindfulness is attracting more attention recently because of these benefits. However, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. Here are some of the most common myths about mindfulness:

 1.      Mindfulness is about relaxation. It’s true that for some people, this kind of practice can be very relaxing. Others can find this kind of focus stimulating and uncomfortable. Many times, each practice session has a different kind of experience depending on where a person is at mentally and emotionally that day. The benefits actually come from remaining present and accepting whatever experience comes up. Mindfulness practice teaches us not to judge what arises either way as good or bad, but simply be with it compassionately.

2.      Mindfulness is about not thinking. I have been practicing mindfulness and Buddhist meditation for twelve years, and not once has my thinking actually stopped. This is definitely not the point. We may have moments of pause or silence that can stretch between thoughts as we practice, which can be quite nice. The funny thing is that as soon as we notice that pause happening, we have named it with a thought, and here we go again. Mindfulness is not about not thinking; it is about changing our relationship to our thoughts. This change consists of not taking thoughts so seriously, of not grasping and attaching to them in reactivity, of being able to hold them lightly and learning to respond gently. 

3.      Mindfulness will “fix” my problems. Expectations, agendas, and goals are often sources of stress for people. It is common that people start mindfulness practice with a goal of relaxation or pain relief. That’s okay. However, the practice quickly leads one to realize the paradox that mindfulness is about letting go of any goals or ideas about it. Again, it is about being with whatever is. If you have a headache, you practice acceptance of that headache with breath and techniques to let go of obsessing about the headache, but without ignoring and dissociating from it. Mindfulness is about finding a balanced way to be with our experience without expectation, no matter what it is.

4.      You have to practice in a specific way. People often get it in their heads that practicing mindfulness means they need to sit cross-legged in full lotus with a hand mudra, eyes shut and back straight. While this is one way to do it (a more traditional Eastern meditative practice), there are also a thousand other ways. For many people, it’s best to start a practice with some kind of movement involved. This is why yoga, tai chi, or many other types of body practices that incorporate mindfulness are so helpful. You can also pick any kind of activity you already do and incorporate mindfulness into it. When I started years ago, my practice was cutting vegetables. Anytime I was preparing my food, I would use it as a practice and have the knife be a focal point as I focused and did deep breathing. When my mind would wander from the knife to other thoughts (my to-do list, something that had happened earlier, or what I planned to do later), I would gently bring it back to the knife without judgment or tension. This was good practice. It is also why I believe art can be a powerful tool in practicing mindfulness, and I’ll talk a little more about that at the end of this blog post.

5.      Mindfulness is about religion. This is an interesting point to ponder. While mindfulness practice in the West does hail from interest in Eastern philosophy and practices, it is not specifically religious. In fact, the kind of mindfulness I am talking about in this article has more to do with psychology than religion. It is important to acknowledge its roots from those traditions but this is where I personally distinguish it from meditation practice. Personally and professionally for me, meditation practices are different and have a root in many different religious traditions with specific worldviews and intentions. There is the practice of yoga and its eight limbs, each with a style and intention of practice; there is Mahayana Buddhism with roots set in compassion and service to others; there is centering prayer in Christianity with a communion with God; there are more indigenous and native practices of listening to and learning from nature. Meditation practices can be diverse and quite powerful if one chooses to explore them. Mindfulness is a component, but the practice and intentions are much deeper and complex in meditation.  

With all of this said, I have been practicing mindfulness through art for many years now, both on my own and in my counseling and art therapy practice. Over and over, I have seen the power of using creative process as a way to cultivate presence and awareness with acceptance. There are so many creative ways this can be done. Art is ideal for mindfulness because your body and mind are involved in a direct experience to focus on. It is an ideal way for beginners to be introduced to mindfulness as well as seasoned practitioners to gain new ideas. I am running workshops in March for both teens and adults to explore mindfulness through art. It can be a great way for people to be introduced to mindfulness, as well as give seasoned practitioners new and fresh ideasClick here to read about mindfulness workshops at Courageous Heart Healing.

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