Art Is a Mindfulness Practice

Photo caption: A girl sits in front of a canvas, painting a pastel sunset with her legs crossed. Creating art can help many to reach a meditative state, immersing you fully in the present moment. Illustration by Pearl McNames. 

Focusing my attention deeply within, I take in a deep breath. Observing fully as I inhale, I let my body inflate like a hot air balloon, taking in all my surroundings and preparing my body to exhale softly and slowly as if it were deflating into the air around me. Pen to paper, my hand runs across the page easily and coolly. I do not pay attention to the result of what I make, simply the experience of my body and mind as I create. Without any specific goal, I let the moment and the art become what it wants to be—an expression of myself and the present moment, a second of mindfulness. 

Throughout time, art has been a crucial part of history, a development of our human race and a common ground between cultures. Creativity is proven to regulate heart rate and blood pressure, along with many other health benefits. In a study conducted by the entertainment and educational content creator, SoulPancake, there was an average increase in happiness of 8.1% with the highest jump being 36.7% when individuals painted portraits of themselves with vibrant colors. When people commit themselves to creating something, it can make a major difference in both their physical and mental health. 

Nic Johnson is the mindfulness teacher and a climate and equity coach at Franklin High School. He says, “Mindfulness is essentially paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment.” It originated from Eastern Buddhist philosophy, dating back about 2500 years, and was first introduced to the Western world in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic. “The main benefit [of mindfulness] is that you realise that you are not your thoughts, that your thoughts are just thoughts. And that you can actually develop a relationship and observe your thoughts so that your thoughts don’t have control over how you feel,” Johnson states. This practice is somewhat similar to art, in the way that art helps you to differentiate yourself from your emotions. When your emotions are on a piece of paper in front of you, one can see clearly that their thoughts are not them, that these emotions are actually separate from who you are.

 One of the biggest advantages of meditation is the way it improves neuroplasticity, which according to the Oxford dictionary is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experiencing new things.” It is the brain’s ability to make changes to itself. When one practices meditation, the brain allows new connections that reduce anxiety and improve happiness. The more mindfulness is utilized, the more positive emotions are produced; and when used consistently, these pathways can become a habit in your brain. Johnson put it like this, “The more time I sit here, zipping around from app to app on my phone, the more my brain wires to be able to do that. The more time I spend, let’s say, practicing meditation, the more my brain is able to do that… I would say that the scientifically documented benefits of meditation definitely make it therapeutic.”

 Art does something very similar. By improving neuroplasticity and creating habits that improve mental health, self expression and creativity, the brain creates new pathways that are used for self development. In the context of an art therapy session, art allows the brain to make connections between the left and the right hemisphere. This can uncover insight into past memories and subconscious thoughts in order to reach root causes of behaviors and thought processes. 

When art is paired with meditation, the results can be substantial. Both creativity and meditation require one to fully focus on the present moment, but in specific art meditations that experience is multiplied. Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and self help author of the book The Power of Now, writes, “All true artists, whether they  know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness.” 

Even though when making art, reaching this present moment often comes naturally, many great artists practice this purposefully and use it as a tool to meditate. For example, many Buddhist statues, thangka paintings and works such as the Pieta by Michelangelo were made with the intention of reaching a meditative state.

Tibetan Buddhist monks have utilized the practice of sand mandalas since 1500 B.C.E, with the intention of purification, peace, meditation, healing, non-attachment, and personal growth. This process could last for up to two weeks, and took great work and learned skill—only to be wiped away in the end. The point of these great pieces is not the end product, but the process.

On top of being Franklin’s mindfulness teacher, Johnson is a jazz musician. He has attended music school, studied under many great musicians in Portland, practices one to three  hours a day and plays gigs around town at many different spots with a wide array of musicians. He says, “Music really provides me with the opportunity to return to the present moment, which might just be simply coming back to my breath, or focusing on the sensations of my feet.” Johnson continues to explain that when he plays music, he notices space and sound in a very in-depth way which helps him to escape from constantly thinking. “When I play music, that’s the zone that I want to be in. I want to not be caught up in thought as to how I’m sounding or what someone may think of what I’m doing,” he says. Music is a powerful way to practice mindfulness, because unlike many forms of art, it focuses on the experience of a piece rather than the end result. We do not listen to or play music for the end result; instead, we listen and play in order to experience a piece fully. Alan Watts, an English writer known for popularizing many Taoist and Buddhist philosophies famously said, “In music one doesn’t make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest, and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord; because that’s the end!” Music has a way of fully immersing our minds and bodies in the present moment, and is proven to improve mental alertness, general mood, sleep quality, and memory. 

Amelia Darling, an artist and Tiktok influencer, says, “Part of why I like [art] so much is because of the way it aligns my mind and body. It’s like swimming, in the way that it is an active form of meditation.” In many instances, art can allow many to enter a space of consciousness and expression that can sometimes be unreachable solely through words. This is why art therapy can be very useful. Art allows many people to create a piece that allows one to express and then reflect on the emotions that the illustration portrays. “I have some little characters that I’ve been drawing for a long time that I feel like represent different parts of me,” Darling says.In the stress of high school and everyday life, finding a headspace and the motivation to meditate can be hard for many students, but setting aside time every day for art can be very valuable. Aside from creating a temporary escape, it can improve mental health, brain development and physical wellness. When drawing, painting, playing music, sculpting, or whatever your form of art may be, you are actually reaping more benefits than you know. With consistency, art can change all of our lives for the better. Johnson says, “I think that good art is created out of a sense of connection to aliveness which is rooted in the present moment, and I would say that meditation connects us to that experience of aliveness in the same way.” 

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