I finally understand the art of Mindfulness

Have you ever tried to balance on one foot, in tree pose, with your eyes closed, for longer than 3 seconds? Difficult, isn’t it? Fall over a lot, don’t you? Well, that’s exactly how I (and many of us) feel when trying the meditative practice of mindfulness. But, after many years of trying, I think I’ve found a way which works for me.

At first, I just didn’t understand mindfulness. You sit there, trying not to think and before you know it, you’re writing a shopping list and angry at yourself for being so weak! It just wasn’t for me. I’d scoff if anyone who suggested I try it, to relieve stress and anxiety. I’d quickly develop an unnecessary hatred for people adept at meditation too; like poor Emily Blunt, who admits she practices Transcendental Meditation to decompress, in her Vogue 73 Questions video.

I was (and am) thankfully, however, able to reach a sense of calm and mind-numb-ness,  when practising Vinyasa flows in yoga. It’s something about the rhythm, the breath-work, the repetition, which helps me focus on my body and block other thoughts. So I’m not a complete neurotic. I just do a lot of yoga.

Art and Mindfulness

But, a visit to the Manchester Art Gallery opened my mind. I popped by recently to see Manchester’s response to the Royal Collections Trust’s Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing exhibition, currently in 12 major art galleries across the UK before it moves to the National Gallery in London to commemorate the 500th year since da Vinci’s death. Needless to say, it was very special, more on that in a future post.

Whilst I was visiting, I revisited the And breathe… exhibit on art and mindfulness, (call me a masochist).  This time though, I downloaded the audio tour app and this is what changed everything for me.

I can’t concentrate

The app directs you to individual works and guides you through short lessons of mindfulness technique. The guide asks you to look at different aspects of each work, to ask yourself how you feel, what you’re thinking and how to understand these thoughts and feelings through the lens of mindfulness.

My first revelation came when observing Untitled (1973) by Albert Irvin. The guide helps the listener to use this piece of abstract expressionism as a focal point. I found it oddly easy to concentrate, relax and be absorbed by the colour, despite being surrounded by crowds of people in the gallery. Similar to how I’m able to balance in tree pose if I open my eyes and focus on a spot on the wall.

I can’t stop thinking

Being walked through simple techniques of observation by the audio guide was helping me reassess mindfulness in a way I hadn’t before. Whilst observing Marcus Coates’ photograph, Sea Mammal (2003), the audio guide explained that it was inevitable that your mind would wander during mindfulness practice, and that this was completely OK. Apparently, the aim of mindfulness is not to obliterate thoughts from one’s mind, but to notice when and why the mind wanders during practice and to bring it back to the focus of the practice.

I don’t have the time

Interior (1924) by Gwen John is a tiny little painting I’d seen before and overlooked. I’m guilty of giving big obnoxious works more of my attention when in galleries and not stopping to observe some of the smaller more intricate works (quelle surprise). What was so wonderful about this part of the tour was the guide’s explanation that small, seemingly benign moments of our day, can take on a new significance, through mindfulness. The guide spoke of how so many of us feel we’ve not enough time to dedicate to mindfulness practice, but that all we need is a few seconds a day, if that’s all we can spare, to rebalance our mind.

The painting depicts a sunlit room where a tray sits on a table alongside a brown teapot and tea making paraphernalia. The guide spoke about how simple moments, such as making tea, can be turned into mindfulness practice if we take the time to breathe and observe these moments properly. Take in the sound, the scent, the feeling, observe our thoughts and focus on the task. It’s a small way into something with potentially big impacts on your mental health.

“Thoughts are not facts or truths.”

The final thing I wish to leave you with is a quote from this guide, which plays when observing Cave (1990) by Prunella Clough; “thoughts are not facts or truths”.

Read the And Breathe… guide

Visit And Breathe... at Manchester Art Gallery

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