Ancient Wisdom, Contemporary Applications
For those not familiar with the concept, mindfulness practice—also known as insight meditation, or Vipassana—is a technique originally outlined in the ancient Buddhist text, the Satipatthana Sutta. The text describes what the Buddha calls the “direct path” for self-realization and focuses on four foundations of mindfulness—mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of sensation/feeling, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of mental content.
Beginning with mindfulness of the body, the Buddha provides a template for all mindfulness practice with his seemingly obvious instructions on the awareness of the breath. “Breathing in long,” he says in the text, the practitioner of mindfulness, “knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, he knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, he knows ‘I breathe out short’” (Anālyo, 2003, p. 4). What we have in this brief passage is a classic meditation on the breath that is found in one form or another in the practices of almost all the world’s great religions. But it can also become a foundational practice for the development of creative mindfulness by allowing students to experience their own breaths intentionally, attentively, and nonjudgementally. The basic practice is described by Kline in the following way: "Sit in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths and relax your body. Notice the breaths as they enter and leave your body and try…to focus on nothing but these breaths. If thoughts about anything pop up in your mind as you do this exercise, just take note of them, [and] return your mind to your breathing." (p. 38)
With young children this practice of mindfulness of the breath could be done in as little as 5 minutes, depending upon the age group; for adolescents, it could take as long as 20 minutes. Afterwards, the group leader might ask the students to write down—or verbally describe—in as great detail as possible what the quality of the breath that they were observing was like: Was the breath long or short? Shallow or deep? Where did the students experience their breath? (In the nose, chest, belly?) How did they feel as they were examining the inward and outward flow of the breath?
While this exercise may not seem all that profound, in fact every element of mindfulness training that might be applied to creative activity is present in it: (1) students are learning to spend time exploring something in all its richness and diversity that they might not have given any serious thought to at all; (2) every time there is the tendency to “multitask”—to turn the mind in another direction—they are instructed to simply return to the breath, the object of their mindful attention; (3) as they return to the examination of the breath time and again, they are to do so without making any judgments about either the “goodness” or “badness” of breath itself or about their “successfulness” or “failure” in the process of examining the breath. What they’re learning from this simple exercise, in other words, is that everything under the sun can become a potential object of exploration, is incredibly interesting in itself, is worthy of serious attention, and should be accepted “as it is,” not as we would like it to be. To use the language of Zen, these students are beginning to look at the world around them with “Beginner’s Mind” (Sukuki, 2007)—a mind that approaches the world with total openness, curiosity, and wonder.
One could spend a lifetime just examining the breath, but this is just the beginning of how mindfulness practice might be applied. One of the most famous contemporary mindfulness practices, which provides an even more vivid illustration of the principles I described above, is the “raisin exercise,” found in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living (Kabat-Zinn, 2010, pp. 27-28; Kline, 2010, p. 40). In brief, students involved in this exercise are given a raisin—a seemingly mundane object—and in the space of twenty or thirty minutes are asked to hold the raisin in their hands, look at the raisin, feel the texture of the raisin between their fingers, smell the raisin, taste the raisin, and then swallow the raisin, experiencing its journey to the back of the mouth and into the esophagus.
After their initial reactions of disgust, almost every student who does this exercise is forced to acknowledge that there is really no such thing as a boring raisin—that the deceptively simple raisin contains within itself a universe of possibilities. As Kabat-Zinn puts it:
When you start paying attention in this way, your relation to things changes. You see more and you see more deeply. You may start seeing an intrinsic order and connectedness between things that were not apparent before…By paying attention, you literally become more awake. It is an emerging from the usual ways in which we all tend to see things and do things mechanically, without full awareness…. This [experience] leads directly to new ways of seeing and being in your life because the present moment, whenever it is recognized and honored, reveals a very special and magical power: it is the only time any of us ever has….It is the only time we have to perceive, to learn, to act, to change, to heal. That is why we value moment to moment awareness so highly. While we may have to teach ourselves how to do it through practicing, the effort itself is its own end. It makes our experiences more vivid and our lives more real. (Kabat-Zinn, 2010, p. 28-29)
Through the practice of mindfulness, subjects of mindful attention, no matter how mundane they might appear at first glance, are intensified in their rich particularity and vivified (literally “brought to life”) before the imagination. After finishing this exercise, the students are then challenged to take the insights they’ve gained about the “amazing raisin” and create something imaginative out of their experiences. Can you, they are asked,…
Write a compelling story or play about a raisin?
Take an interesting series of photos of the raisin?
Sketch or paint the raisin?
Do a video production or performance piece involving the raisin?
The twenty or thirty minutes that students spent mindfully examining the raisin, now come into play. Through the power of mindfulness, students have been given the experiential content that they were missing that becomes the fodder for creative production. If asked to describe the raisin before this experience they would have probably described it simply as “brown,” “round,” “small” and “sweet”; now they know that none of these even comes close to describing the raisin that they have fully—that is mindfully—experienced for themselves. Similes and metaphors frequently come into play at this point (e.g., the raisin is like “the Grand Canyon,” “my grandfather’s face,” or “a meteorite on its way to destroy the earth”), suggesting that a deeper, less literal, and more imaginative way of thinking about experience is taking place. Once a student gets to this level of awareness about any object or experience, it is then and only then that the possibilities for true creative expression become manifest.
From Mindful Examination to Creative Expression
Through the basic practice of mindful awareness, any thing, person, or experience can become a subject of mindful exploration. To illustrate this point, we ask students to look around their homes and try to find some ordinary, seemingly boring, object to bring into class. In fact, we tell them, the more boring the object, the better. When the time comes for this follow-up exercise, the classroom is filled with a wide assortment of rusty tools, office supplies, articles of clothing, toiletries, and the like.
As with the raisin exercise, each students is instructed to sit with his or her object of choice for a significant period of time, examining it in all its rich complexity. Using the insights of the late Zen teacher John Daido Loori, we advise the student to wait for “your presence to be acknowledged,” patiently allowing the object to “reveal itself to you” (Loori, 2005, p. 95). These instructions are often met with bewilderment, but they also encourage a deeper level of serious examination than would otherwise be the case. In The Zen of Creativity Loori offers some helpful advice on how to further enhance this process of attentive awareness:
At first, the familiar surface aspect of the [object] will become apparent. It may take some time for the [object] to reveal its more subtle and mysterious dimensions. Be patient. Be willing to be with your subject without knowing what it is, without projecting your ideas onto it….Don’t step back from your experience and judge it. Just let the [object] be, however it presents itself, and allow your expression to come out as it will. Be intimate with the experience. When you’ve finished, thank your [object] in whatever way seems appropriate to you, and then let it go. (95)
It’s only after this long and arduous process of becoming profoundly intimate with an object of investigation has occurred that the hands-on process of creating can and should take place.
At this point, students might be guided to express their creative visions in a specific medium of the teacher’s choice. In our program, the first step in this process has traditionally involved shooting a series of photographs of the object in various settings and lighting situations. The camera in this context becomes an extension of the process of mindful awareness, allowing the student to continue to deeply study their “mundane” object. The use of macro settings, which are standard features now on even the cheapest point-and-shoot cameras, is particularly useful, since it forces students into even greater intimacy with the object being photographed.
Students can also be asked to reflect upon what medium might best enable them to convey the depth of the subject they have chosen and then be invited to engage in some sort of creative activity using the medium of their choice. I’m often amazed at how incredibly innovative children and adolescents can be when they are given control of both the subject and the mode of creative expression. Just as objects of mindful study are virtually unlimited, so too are the possible forms that creative expression can take, once educators in particular get beyond their own limited, and often biased, perspective on what are “appropriate” and “inappropriate” vehicles for creative expression.
Mindful Introspection and Creative Expression
It is certainly the case that there are an endless number of external objects—both mundane and magnificent—that one can use as fodder for mindful creativity, particularly with young children. In The Creative Self, however, external objects are simply used as tools to illustrate the technique of mindful awareness. The ultimate object of investigation and the preferred subject of creative expression is the student’s own self—his or her appearance, personality, attitudes and beliefs, intimate relationships, and the content of his or her thoughts and emotions. As Kline observes, “For better or worse, most human beings are ego driven creatures, who typically interpret reality in terms of their own needs, wants, desires, fears, and expectations….[But] human self-absorption is actually an interesting object of examination, a tool for deepening self-discovery, and most importantly a potentially viable source of creative inspiration” (p. 10).
While the natural self-absorption of adolescents is often a source of dismay for parents and teachers, that same self-absorption, when channeled through the process of mindful introspection, offers the most profound use of mindfulness practice both for creative expression as well as for personal transformation. In fact, this is the approach that suggested in the Satipatthana Sutta, where the Buddha invites us to explore virtually every imaginable aspect of our physical selves before moving on to the examination of thoughts and emotions. This process allows us to penetrate into the deepest levels of our own consciousness, where there is a treasure trove of fascinating, and sometimes frightening, content to observe, using precisely the same methods by which we previously examined our breaths and objects in the external world.
Providing more mature students with the opportunity to get in touch with the content of their thoughts and emotions is a powerful experience indeed. When the practice of mindfulness is applied to strong emotional states like anger, fear, or desire, for example, students learn to observe these states as they reveal themselves, without adding additional mental content and without judging them as either good or bad. The practice of equanimously observing these states and treating them with some degree of objective detachment can be an extremely liberating experience for some students. In fact, the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness practice in this context have been documented in numerous psychological studies (see Davis & Hayes, 2011). There are, however, some students for whom mindful introspection can prove too intense, which is the reason why this practice should be used judiciously. For students who have been the victims of emotional or physical abuse in particular, tapping into deep emotions can prove a disturbing experience, one perhaps best left explored with a trained professional.
Despite this caveat, what we have found is that when students are able to sit with strong thoughts and emotions using the techniques of mindfulness practice, a world of creative content comes pouring out of them, greatly enriching their creative expression. This should hardly be surprising, since great artists are usually also deeply introspective individuals who have the courage to tap into the wounded, dark, and sometimes even violent dimensions of their personalities in order to enrich their art. Provided students are able to handle the strong emotions that can surface during this process, we have found that the process of mindful introspection can be a source of tremendous inspiration for the student creator.
Anālayo (2003). Satipatthana: The direct path to realization. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.
Davis, D. & Hayes, J. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. Psychotherapy 48(2), 198-208.
Kline, T. (2010). The Creative Self. New York: SophiaOmni.
Loori, J. (2005). The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. New York: Ballantine Books.
Suzuki, S. (2007). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Boston: Weatherhill.