Can You Draw Your Way to Zen?
Always wanted the Zen, but without the meditation? Maybe drawing is your path to mindfulness.
Everyone wants some peace of mind. In these chaotic times, carving out some Zen for yourself seems not just a luxury, but also a vital necessity. Alas, the idea of meditation for most people — sitting still, focusing on breathing, shutting out the world — seems too difficult, too eccentric, too boring, or too all of the above. Wendy Ann Greenhalgh’s Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing: A Creative Path to Awareness offers picking up a pencil and drawing as an alternative that everyone can do. If doodling through a meeting’s ever brought you a fleeting moment of Zen, then mindfulness drawing might bring you closer to not just an understanding of yourself, but also an understanding of the power of art.
“Everyone can draw,” Greenhalgh (shown above) writes in her introduction. “Far from being a rare gift, only possessed by the ‘artists’ among us, drawing can be as natural and instinctive to us as breathing — if we let it.” Greenhalgh’s mindfulness drawing program, if followed faithfully, “has the power to effortlessly lead us into a deeper relationship with ourselves and the world around us.” Drawing in this way eliminates the distance and disconnect we can feel with the world and ourselves. Drawing compels us to see deeply, which leads us to (perhaps for the first time) build a real relationship with parts of ourselves and parts of our world we’ve been too busy (or fearful) to look deeply and directly at.
If that sounds too New Age-y for you, do not fear. Greenhalgh’s writing style is as simple, clear, and honestly direct as the simple line drawings (such as the cover image at the top of this post) that accompany the text. One drawback of previous books on the subject, such as Frederick Franck’s Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, was the artist’s own work, which hoped to inspire, but had the unintentional effect of discouraging the reader by setting an impossible standard for the amateur. Greenhalgh, herself a professional artist, resists the urge to show off and leaves the image-making all up to you. Also, if you’ve never done anything more than doodle or consider buying a yoga mat to meditate on, Greenhalgh provides step-by-step instructions to get you simultaneously drawing and focusing on mindfulness.
“All children are artists,” Greenhalgh quotes Pablo Picasso (shown above) saying. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Most people pick up a crayon, pencil, etc., as a child and start drawing naturally, making marks just for the pleasure of it. When we grow up and develop our “inner critic,” however, most of us literally talk ourselves out of being creative. Greenhalgh coaches you to reclaim that innocent, child-like “beginner’s mind” to combat the critical mind that cripples creativity and self-esteem.
Keeping the jargon to a minimum, Greenhalgh calls this liberating transition a move from “thinking-mind” to “being-mind.” Once we agree with her that “thoughts are simply habits” and that we can draw our way to new, more positive habits of mind and being, we can tap into our “inner Picasso” not to make million-dollar masterpieces, but rather to make connections with our creative selves. As Greenhalgh puns, we are “drawn into” drawing by the time-defying effects of flow, the feeling of being “in the zone” where the most joyful moments of life await us.
Part of connecting with your self is connecting with the world around you. Once Greenhalgh gets you drawing again, she guides you through the different genres of drawing, making distinctions with how each genre adds a new dimension to your mindfulness. Drawing a still life, for example, “we draw closer” (that pun, again) “and come into relationship with the thing we are drawing. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent exhibition Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life [which I wrote about here] emphasized this idea of still life as dialogue between the animate and inanimate.
Just as Matthew B. Crawford proposes the spiritual benefits of reclaiming a hands-on relationship with the physical world in Shop Class as Soulcraft, Greenhalgh proposes walking, seeing, and drawing as the sketchbook for the searching soul. Drawing landscapes (such as Van Gogh’s shown above) literally helps us make sense of the world. “You discover how confounding the world is when you try to draw it,” Greenhalgh quotes artist Shaun Tan. “You don’t have to travel to encounter weirdness. You wake up to it.” When the world gets too weird, mindfulness drawing compels us to slow down, reorient ourselves, and literally “see the big picture” without drowning in the details. Rather than drown in detail, we appreciate the details anew. Perhaps Van Gogh’s compulsive drive to draw thousands and thousands of drawings in his distinctive style reflects this ability of mindfulness drawing to give solace to even the most troubled psyche.
Like landscape, the human innerscape offers possibilities for mindfulness drawing. Portraits of self and others, Greenhalgh believes, “offer the opportunity to develop our capacity for loving-kindness.” Drawing thus draws upon the natural empathy within us, both for others and ourselves. “I would wish my portraits to be of the people,” she quotes Lucian Freud saying, “not like them.” Certainly Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud) drew a more psychologically than photographically accurate portrait of his father (shown above) to be “of” him more than “like” him. Perhaps most importantly, Greenhalgh argues, “When we draw portraits of others mindfully, barriers between the self and the other are broken down.” The image of the whole world sitting down and sketching their way to world peace sounds a little crazy, but it might be just crazy enough to work.
In the same spirit of openness and discovery, Wendy Ann Greenhalgh’s Mindfulness & the Art of Drawing: A Creative Path to Awareness might not just be the key to appreciating world and self, but also art itself. If you look at a work such as Egon Schiele’s 1910 Self-Portrait (shown above) and find it impenetrable, then mindfulness drawing might help you scratch the surface by putting yourself in the shoes of a creative artist. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum recently began a #Startdrawing program that asks visitors to sketch rather than photograph the art in this spirit of mindfulness drawing. True art appreciation takes time and effort. Greenhalgh’s mindfulness drawing turns all of life into an art museum for us to see and appreciate through time and effort. If you’re looking for peace of mind, it might just be a doodle — albeit a focused, mindful doodle — away.
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.
- Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
- Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
- The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.