Some sixty people gathered at the Yale University Art Gallery on a summer afternoon to mindfully gaze at a single painting. It was the only one in the vast space. They stared and stared at a James Turrell print – the white, rectangular coffin-like box at the center of the frame was engulfed by varying shades of grey and black. It was bleak, and I wasn’t connecting with the artist.
But then, standing by were Anne Dutton, teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at the Yale Stress Center, and Danielle Casioppo, a Health Educator for Being Well at Yale. Turrell’s ‘Shanta’ is the culmination of a five-week, drop-in session of mindfulness in art.
Extensive research has established a strong link between meditation and neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change in response to something that we do and experience. In a 2008 paper titled Buddha Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, authors Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz point to several studies, including one which registered a stronger activation in regions of the brain of expert meditators – with an average of 19,000 hours of practice – compared to beginners.
Intimidating data like this can leave many of us staring with longing and trepidation at the summit from base camp. But here’s some astoundingly good news: Harvard researchers in 2011 discovered a staggering link between short-term mindfulness practice and a change in brain physiology. The researchers took magnetic resonance images of 16 newbies before and after they enrolled in an eight-week MBSR program. The result? An increase in grey matter within the left hippocampus, compared to the control group of 17 individuals. After just eight weeks of practice, the brains of MBSR participants underwent a positive change in regions involved with learning and memory, the regulation of emotion, and perspective taking.
Here I was, staring at a Turrell.
“My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give,” Turrell states on his website.
Are there techniques to help broaden one’s perception? I was about to find out.
The group’s goal was to apply mindfulness methods to heighten awareness, to pay attention in a particular way, and to be undistracted by all other stimuli.
To achieve this, we began with a body scan led by Danielle. From the toes to the head, you direct your awareness to specific parts of your body to identify tightness or discomfort. You mentally relax the area and somewhere along the way, you start to relax. Anne then had everyone focus on the breath – the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath.
At the end of this exercise, we were ready to view the art again. Some reactions from the participants:
- The box looked less like a coffin.
- The art itself had gained awareness – it was reaching out to the viewer from the frame.
- The participants reflected in the glass had become a part of the work.
- After meditation there is a feeling of being unconfined. The little white box was now quite lovely.
There are so many ways of looking at art. At experiences. At life. At each other. At ourselves.
“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are,” Anais Nin reportedly said.
My afternoon at Yale culminated with my seeing the box not solely as a coffin, but as a drawer jutting out from the grey wall. A space opening up for me to fill with color – possibly kites, possibly scarves, injecting joy to the image.
Both formal and informal mindfulness practice have three components, Anne told me.
- Attitude – acceptance of an experience. You don’t have to like the experience – resisting it creates stress. It’s a bit like me becoming more open to the Turrell piece.
I then asked Danielle if she could give you a simple, daily mindfulness practice that will fit into your busy life. She came up with this – but first, she offers some guidelines.
- Do one task and one task only. For example, listen to the sound of water as you pour yourself some tea. Feel the warm cup in your hands. Be aware of these simple sounds and sensations. That means no texting while drinking tea, for instance. Don’t put your mind on autopilot all the time.
- Be aware of what you are thinking. “You don’t have to believe everything you think. You don’t have to act on everything you think if you don’t want to,” she says.
And now, the practice.
- Start with one minute of observing your breath, once a day. In-breath. Out-breath. You can do this sitting or lying down. When the mind wanders, “gently, kindly, bring it back to the breath,” Danielle advises.
- After a week, increase your practice to two times a day, one minute each in the morning and before bedtime.
- During the third week, you could do two minutes two times a day, or three minutes once a day.
“You are giving yourself permission to pause and just be with your breath, your body, your cup of tea, your spouse, your child, your friend, nature – be fully present with that other entity. Allow the time to mono-task. Doing that is so good for our brains, our emotional self,” Danielle says. “That’s how we get so much more out of life.”
Today’s toast comes hot off the stove
Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Web: www.sujatasrinivasan.com. Twitter @SujataSrini