Nadja Gabriela Plein was the winner of the Abstract/Non-representational category award in the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019. Her abstract paintings are playfully intuitive and rooted deeply in her own meditative practice. In the following article she explores the relationship between drawing and meditation, and shares exercises that an artist can use to introduce meditation into their art practice.
Mindfulness is more than wellness
Towards a wider understanding of mindfulness
What happens when we bring mindfulness into observational drawing?
What happens to drawing when drawing is meditation?
Downloadable drawing and meditation exercises
A Hundred Times Looking – Observational Drawing as Meditation
Mindfulness is more than wellness
Meditation and mindfulness have become very popular in recent years and, inevitably, have been picked up by the art world. Manchester Art Gallery have the ‘Mindful Museum’ programme and the Tate Modern also have various tools on offer.
The emphasis of mindfulness in popular culture as well as the arts is overwhelmingly on wellbeing. This is understandable, the contemporary Western mindfulness movement has its roots in therapy. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced adapted Buddhist meditation techniques as a therapeutic discipline in 1979 with his ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’ programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. But, if we look at meditation and mindfulness in the context of art, does it necessarily have to be in connection with wellness, or does the wider tradition of Buddhist meditation have something more to offer, to both the practicing artist and the art viewer?
In this article, I will explore a wider tradition of mindfulness and meditation, drawing on ancient Buddhist texts as well as contemporary scholarship. I will explore how meditation and drawing from observation might approach each other, investigate some of the philosophical questions that are raised when we do so, and sketch out the possibilities of a practice of observational drawing as meditation. I will end with some suggestions and ideas for experimentation and practice.
Towards a wider understanding of mindfulness
In order to take a new look at meditation and explore its wider potential for drawing practice, we need to, first of all, re-examine the definition of mindfulness itself. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This is a definition we are familiar with. Yet, looking at the Pali Canon, the oldest sets of Buddhist texts we still have, we can see that this is only one of several strands of mindfulness.
Tse-fu Kuan, in ‘Mindfulness in Early Buddhism’, identifies four definitions or strands of mindfulness in the Pali Canon. Note that only the first of them is non-judgmental, all others employ discernment:
- The first is the ‘simple awareness’ that we are used to from clinical psychology and popular literature.
- The second is a ‘protective awareness’. Mindfulness, here, is like a gatekeeper at a town gate that checks everything that comes in through the five senses and the mind, aiming to let only those things in that are ethical.
- The third one Kuan defines as ‘introspective awareness’. Mindfulness, here, sweeps the “town”, looking for those things that managed to sneak past the gatekeeper. Again, with an aim to encourage the ethical and wisely discourage the unethical.
- The fourth definition of mindfulness is ‘deliberately forming conceptions’. Here mindfulness is the deliberate calling up of a thought or concept for the purposes of investigation or the nurturing of skillful attributes such as compassion.
There is a bit of a paradox here, both non-judgment and judgment seem to be important.
So, what is the role of non-judgment in the ‘simple awareness’ strand of mindfulness? The problem is that much judgment is done very quickly and pretty much automatically. We can see easily why this element fits so well with cognitive psychology. By actively slowing down or even disabling automatic judgment, we can slow down or disable negative behaviour patterns and wellbeing can be improved very effectively.
In the context of a wider Buddhist meditation practice, non-judgment is also used to slow down and disable automatic thinking patterns. In addition, it provides the training ground for concentration. Without it, further development would not be possible. But then, mindfulness goes beyond ‘simple awareness’ to a mindfulness that actively employs judgment and discernment.
What then, is the role of judgment in mindfulness? Having slowed down or even disabled automatic judgment, the meditator can now use their discernment purposefully. We can identify two main topics: ethics and the development of wisdom.
We can think of ethics foremost as being about harm and harmlessness. Aiming towards reducing and eventually eliminating harm on one hand, and aiming towards living harmlessly on the other. Eventually going beyond harmlessness into ‘support’. ‘Protective’ and ‘introspective awareness’ are both largely about clearing the mind of harm and ‘deliberately forming conceptions’ is an active forming of the person as an ethical, that is harmless, being.
Somebody who is mindful in the sense of ‘simple awareness’ might be in the process of committing the most heinous crime with great attention and present-moment awareness. This is why the discerning, ethical elements of mindfulness are an essential part of meditation practice. Banal evil or even outright cruelty are certainly possible in art, for instance, representations that are hurtful or degrading to some. So, an art practice that draws on mindfulness must, somehow, draw on mindfulness in its fuller sense.
Development of Wisdom
Here, meditation becomes an insight practice. ‘Simple awareness’ turns into an investigation. With automatic judgment put to one side, the meditator can ask deliberate questions into the very nature of things: are they permanent or ever-changing? Might they cause suffering if I cling to them? Are they solid things in-itself or dependent on conditions? Questions that go to the very root of things, investigating their very nature. It shows mindfulness as an inherently critical practice, in the sense of not taking things for granted but investigating them carefully.
We can see from this that a fuller meditation practice goes significantly beyond personal wellness. Rather than being ‘me’ time, meditation is time spent for and in engagement with the world and wider social community. It is time spent working towards harmlessness. It is time spent asking deep, critical questions about the very nature of things. This includes asking questions about received societal truths. Where it is about wellness, it is about the wellbeing of the whole social network of beings.
A full meditation practice is a far more complex thing to bring into drawing than ‘simple awareness’. So, what happens when we bring this mindfulness into observational drawing?
What happens when we bring mindfulness into observational drawing?
We can see some easy potential overlaps between ‘simple awareness’ and observational drawing. Both require high levels of concentration and a sustained effort, an element of ‘keeping with it’ for the duration of the drawing or the meditation. And, both require that close observational attention, which we saw as characteristic of mindfulness.
The ‘simple awareness’ stage of mindfulness is important in drawing, too. Indeed, when teaching drawing I often discourage people from thinking about what the object is, they are drawing, and instead simply draw what they see. If I meditate on my breath but am thinking about breathing rather than observing my actual breath, I will not be able to learn anything from my actual breath later in the meditation. The same can be said of drawing. If I draw a life model but rather than drawing what I actually see, I am drawing a person from what I think he/she should look like, I will not learn anything from the actual shapes in front of me.
On the other hand, we can see that staying with ‘simple awareness’ in drawing could be problematic. It might result in a mechanical copying, or worse, become unthinkingly hurtful, and no longer be mindful in a deeper sense. So, how might we explore drawing as meditation in a deeper sense?
Let us look at what actually happens in meditation and then go on to explore this in the context of drawing. There are many different approaches to meditation. My outline is a relatively usual one found in the Theravada school of Buddhism, but it is by no means the only one:
First ‘simple awareness’ mindfulness is established. The meditator starts by concentrating on an object. An ‘object’ in meditation can be anything one can bring one’s attention to, such as the breath or external objects, for instance a candle flame. Concentration and mindfulness become established by practicing time and again to bring one’s attention back to the object, every time concentration is lost. Concentration becomes stronger and observation becomes more heightened. This is sometimes known as samatha meditation, or calming meditation. Here, when a thought or sensation arises in the mind of the meditator, it is briefly noted, non-judgmentally, before the attention is returned to the object of the meditation. The focus is on staying with the object and gaining greater concentration, in order to create a platform from which to go deeper.
When the mind has become a bit calmer the meditator can choose to start investigating objects, either the initial object of meditation or anything that arises in the mind. This is known as vipassana meditation, or insight meditation. The object has now become an object of investigation. The concentration gained from the first stage now functions as a kind of magnifying glass. Deeply concentrating and looking through the magnifying glass of mindfulness, I might see the breath no longer as one thing, no longer one wave that rises and falls, but as a bundle of phenomenal impressions. This might raise questions regarding the identity or coherence of things, seeing things not as things in themselves but as something that in Buddhism is called ‘non-self’ or ‘empty’.
We have seen that meditation begins with non-judgmental ‘simple awareness’ and then progresses to a very deliberate use of judgment to develop harmlessness and wisdom. The crucial point is how this harmlessness and wisdom is arrived at. It is not arrived at through listening to a teacher, reading a book or engaging in a debate (although these things can help), it is arrived at through insights that arise from direct personal engagement with the meditation object. With this we have reached one of the most important reasons how we might think of drawing as meditation. Drawing from observation has that same direct personal engagement with an object. When seeing drawing in this light, it becomes a potential practice of knowledge-seeking and ethics-building.
We can see that meditation is a deep looking practice. But, meditation is not passive. It is more than just observation, it is participation. Human beings are not just observers in this world we live in, we are participants, we have agency. So, meditation is a practice of both looking and participating on a very deep level. Drawing is an action of both deep observation and participation. Drawing is participating in the world as an agent. In this sense drawing is inherently akin to meditation. And, importantly, it is the actual direct engagement with an object/material that is the place of agency.
Being an agent, having agency is taking deliberate intentional actions and being accountable for them. So, the idea of ethics is inherent in the concept of agency. As participating human beings, we are accountable for our actions. If we see drawing as a participation in the world, as deliberate action, it is an action that carries the question of ethics in it. Drawing, here, becomes an action subject to ethics.
Drawing as meditation, then, is an action that begins with ‘simple observation’ and moves beyond that to something that engages with the world in a very deep sense. Deep looking on one hand and active, accountable participation on the other.
What happens to the drawing when drawing is meditation?
We have arrived at a point where we can see drawing, at least potentially, as being meditation. But, what happens to the drawing itself when seen from this new viewpoint?
When we closely observe an object in meditation, the important thing is not the object itself but rather the awareness of it – remember that mindfulness is a kind of awareness – the emphasis is on the way of looking rather than the object. Although, a meditator might get used to a specific object of meditation, these objects are interchangeable and the same knowledge may be arrived at through various objects. For instance, one can realise that things are in flux by watching one’s own breath, a candle flame or the thoughts as they come and go. Indeed, when looking at something with the magnifying glass of mindfulness, its identity tends to get broken down, the object loses its object-hood, and instead becomes a conglomerate of phenomena that arise and pass. The breath becomes a bundle of sensations and impressions that arise and pass, no longer one thing.
If this mode of viewing is brought to art, the art object, too, loses its object-hood and becomes a bundle of phenomena that arise and pass. If meditation is brought into art, the point of interest shifts away from the art object to the experience. The actual art is now no longer in the art object but rather in the experience. The American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey (1859-1952), in his book ‘Art as Experience’ discussed this idea of the actual artwork not being located in the art object but in the experience associated with it, very thoroughly.
This, of course, raises the question if we need an art object at all, if, from the point of view of meditation, the place of art is in the experience itself. I think that this uncertainty and doubt creates a fertile ground from which to ask further questions. It is interesting to investigate the contradictions that are caused by keeping the art object tentatively, all the while questioning its validity.
If we say the actual artwork is in the experience and not the art object, that also changes the roles of the artist and the spectator. The artist is no longer the genius who creates a precious object for the spectator to consume passively but both partake in both ‘looking’ and ‘making’, both are observers and participators. It also means that the actual artwork is never finished but constantly in a process of being made, always in flux, changed by each new engagement, each new experience.
The idea of insight meditation, this allowing of wisdom to arise from a state of open mindfulness, is an allowing of different points of view, it is a widening of consciousness. A conversation, when it is good and working, is listening – observing! – and participating. Meditation, when it is good and working, is observing and participating, and from this engagement new things can be learnt, consciousness is widened, wisdom is gained. Drawing – when it is good and working – is observation and participation. Observation is developed in accord with agency and this is the fertile ground of change. Social change needs listening, and participation from all its voices, it cannot be an imposition of just one point of view.
Drawing as meditation is an embodiment of a practice, of an attitude towards living, that aims for cooperation, participation and community.
I have recently run a series of workshops at OPEN Ealing, an arts centre in West London, exploring ways in which meditation and observational drawing overlap, collide, merge and change each other. Both drawing and meditation are experiential actions, a description or discussion can only go so far. By placing meditation and drawing next to each other and on top of each other, we can investigate how they interact. I do not think that there is any one right answer. For me, this is an ongoing project that forms the heart of my art practice.
Here are some downloadable drawing and meditation exercises from my workshops for you to try out.
• Nadja’s work, as well more information about her writing, exhibitions and teaching can be found on her website.
• Read our artist interview with Nadja here