Art as Medicine

Mindfulness increases health and happiness and getting creative can help us experience it
August 3, 2019 Updated: August 6, 2019

Tibetan monks have a ritual. They spend hours, sometimes days, creating exquisite, intricate mandalas from colored sand. Once finished, the mandalas are destroyed. It’s a way of accepting the transitory nature of life. Nothing is permanent. All we ever have is now.

The monks know that creating art, whether mandalas or drawings, is a direct portal to present-moment awareness or mindfulness. Creativity springs from the now, and being in the now fosters creativity, according to a new study in Psychological Science.

Mandala
Tibetian monks constructing Mandala from color sand in Thiksay monastery. Mandalas transmit positive energies to the people who view them. (Shutterstock)

Musicians, stage actors, and comedians have perfect timing. They neither rush nor hesitate. Sculptors and painters become lost in the moment as they find their art. But what about the rest of us? Can we use art to find the moment? And what are the benefits if we do?

In 2018, researchers at Aalborg University in Denmark reviewed twenty studies drawn from a wider selection and concluded that “engagement in specially designed art activities or arts therapies can reduce physical symptoms and improve mental health issues.”

They recommended that art activities and clinical art interventions be “used as non-medical interventions to promote public health and wellbeing.”

We Are Born Creative Geniuses

Those of you who can’t carry a tune in a paper bag or who create “paintings” that look more like Rorschach tests may think this approach is not for you. In fact, it’s all the better if you have fewer expectations because you are then less likely to attach yourself to the results. It doesn’t matter whether we create a masterpiece; it’s the process of artistic expression that—if done without judgment—is healing.

In fact, it is our judging mind that may actually undermine our creative potential.

When a test devised by Dr. George Land for NASA back in the ’60s was administered to 1,600 5-year-olds, an astounding 98 percent scored at creative genius levels. Five years later, only 30 percent of those same subjects scored at genius levels. By the time they turned 15, it was down to 12 percent, suggesting that creativity is innate, then unlearned.

In the process of growing up, learning rules, memorizing facts, ascribing judgments, and regretting past choices while accruing hopes and aspirations for the future, we habitually let the thinking, judgmental mind take over. This mind can suffocate creativity.

For example, one common bit of advice for writers is to break their creative process into two roles. The first role is that of the writer, who puts words on the page with abandon. The second role is that of the editor, who comes in afterward to evaluate the work and fix it or delete it. Then the writer comes back when it’s time to add more words in again. Writers who can’t keep their internal editor silent will often critique themselves into writer’s block.

girl is playing with modeling clay in pottery workshop
Girl is playing with modeling clay in pottery workshop. (Shutterstock)

How Creativity Makes Mindfulness Easy

Art and mindfulness go hand-in-clay. Mindfulness occurs when our mind stops generating useless and distracting thoughts and comes to bear fully, and often silently, on whatever it is right before us.

It is a calm, natural state that researchers now know has many associated health benefits, including improved immunity and self-esteem, lower chronic pain and anxiety, and reduced risk factors for cancer and heart disease. Mindfulness can also rein in reactivity, like binge-eating after hearing bad news, for example. According to research, it does this by shrinking the amygdala, our brain’s fight or flight center.

We live in an age of unprecedented stress and distraction. A recent University of Southern California study found that Americans consume 13-plus hours of media a day on average, much of it filled with stimuli designed to trigger the amygdala. Many have forgotten what it means to have a calm, present-moment awareness.

Stephen Barker, dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, would suggest an art class to help people rediscover this awareness and the benefits that come with it.

Stephen Barker, Dean, Claire Trevor School of the Arts Steve Zylius/UCI
Stephen Barker, Dean, Claire Trevor School of the Arts (Steve Zylius/UCI)

“The arts are important in healing, and present-moment awareness,” says Barker. “They quiet anxiety and promote inner well-being.” The 72-year-old director, choreographer, dancer, actor, writer, painter, singer, and guitarist looks and sounds fifteen years younger than his age. He describes his artful life as feeling “like an endless improvisation.” When asked about his health, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m in perfect health, and I’m getting younger every year,” he quips, eyes twinkling. “I’m not kidding,” he says, and we both laugh.

Barker is also the former director of the UCI Institute and Museum for California Art, where he encouraged        people to consider how art makes them feel physically, in the moment, before they make intellectual judgments about the work.

This distinction between the intellect and the heart is essential. It is the difference, often, between experiencing the moment and analyzing the moment. The power of art comes in drawing us in and leaving us in a state of experiencing the work, rather than dissecting it. The same is true of creating art.

For example, with his acting students, Barker urges them to get out of their heads onstage and into their physical senses, into the subtle sights and sounds around them for a more instantaneous experience.

Any one of us can find a similar experience. We need simply grab a piece of wet clay and squeeze, pound, and caress it into some inspired shape. In the process, we’ll discover that we’re blissfully aware only of how the clay oozes beneath our fingers and a smell reminiscent of pre-school play period. Voila! We are in the moment and reaping the benefits.

The Thing That Blocks Creativity and Mindfulness

Of course, just picking up a paintbrush isn’t always enough to draw us out of our thoughts and onto the canvas. Sometimes our mind just keeps on ticking. That can be especially true if we are a practiced artist prone to criticizing our work even as we create it.

This is a side-effect of memory and holding onto events or ideas from previous experience.

We all carry around this baggage of memory—because it keeps us safe.

“Memory helps us to know ourselves,” Barker says. It helps us learn that fire burns—always. We make associations, then proceed through life, frequently engaging an autopilot constructed from memory that can help us navigate situations without relearning them every time.

But the very feature designed to keep us safe can also keep us stuck. Onstage, there’s a microcosm of this paradox. The script must be learned, but watching an actor recite lines memorized weeks ago might be spot on one night, but fall flat the next as he tries to reproduce those exact inflections. Watching this is painful for both the actor and the audience.

The trick to staying in the present moment is to become a child again. Forget what you think you know, by concentrating on what is right there in front of you, trusting that the future will unfold as it’s meant to. The past—however perfect—can never be recreated.

“The true artist buries any previous realizations or insights during the performance so that it can be uncovered at that moment,” says Joshua Townshend-Zellner, an acting coach involved in the theater and film industry for more than 25 years.

Awareness and Creativity

Many artists will tell you that being creative and being in the moment go hand in hand, each increasing the other. So how can we drop any baggage that may keep us from the infinitely alive and creative present?

“Most actors have tricks to keep them spontaneous,” says Barker. These tricks allow them to create the illusion of performing the scene for the first time onstage. One way they do this is by focusing on their senses. The average person can use this same trick. You can focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the present; the weight of your arms, the rhythm of your breath, and other small moment-to-moment subtleties. By doing so, we are brought into the now.

In doing this, the amygdala becomes less active and the entire autonomic nervous system gets a break.

It’s the same state achieved during meditation, conferring the same benefits. But for those who have tried meditating and just can’t seem to still their minds, artistic expression offers another portal to the now. The creative process opens us up to seeing, hearing, feeling anew, to relaxing into the moment, without judgment. Perhaps that’s why the typical yogi and the typical artist often seem younger than their age.

The Paradox of Letting Go 

Of course, coming into the present moment or creating art isn’t necessarily as simple as focusing on our breath and senses. Part of the challenge we face is getting into the right headspace, or rather, brain space.

Our brains have two modes of thought: exploitatory and exploratory, according to esteemed neuroscientist Moshe Bar. We might think of the exploitatory modes as habitual and the exploratory mode as creative. When we’re doing something new, whether traveling to a new place or trying our hand at painting, we’re in exploratory mode. We’re adventurous and willing to take risks. We are in the moment.

This contrasts with the exploitatory mode, which is the mode we need to be in when we have a set of specific tasks to get done in a certain sequence.

“Mental load, such as to-do lists, is a part of life, and we have to accept it,” says Bar. “But when our mental capacity is loaded, we are more exploitatory and less creative.”

The actor with a mind full of memorized lines and well-practiced behaviors set to the mold of a character is at risk of becoming bogged down in the exploitatory mode every bit as much as the mother with a laundry list the length of an escalator who carves out a moment for quietude only to become exasperated by her inability to fully relax.

Each experiences the critical, over-thinking, over-taxed mind removing them from the present moment. Rather than being creative, the artist becomes destructive (think Van Gogh, Hemingway) while the mother becomes frazzled, prone to screaming at the top of her lungs for her kids to “Stop screaming!”

The mental state needed for both creativity and blissful present-moment awareness is elusive when dissected, scrutinized, or sought after.

It then becomes bogged down with words, thoughts, and associations. Like the meditator who tries unsuccessfully to force present-moment blissfulness, the artist who tries too hard to find the moment onstage appears stiff or lost.

Joshua Townsend Zellner
Joshua Townshend Zellner directing one of his workshops. (Courtesy of Joshua Townshend Zellner)

Whether it is an experienced artist or a layperson looking to become present through the arts, Townshend-Zellner recommends listening with the whole body. “You can read or write fast or slow, but with listening, you must be in sync with the other,” he says. Listening is a gift that blesses both giver and receiver because by bestowing one’s undivided attention, one becomes instantly present.

How Do You Know if You’ve Arrived?

Eckhart Tolle, the author of “The Power of Now,” suggests we ask ourselves if there is joy, ease, and lightness in what we’re doing. “If there isn’t, then time is covering up the present moment and life is perceived as a burden or a struggle.”

Creating art is fun. Improvise, walk through a gallery, hum a tune, take an acting class. For a happier, longer life, rekindle the creative genius inside you. Along the way, you might just discover a present moment full of beauty and you that is more relaxed, attentive, and creative.

Joni Ravenna Sussman is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer. Contact her at Joni.Ravenna@gmail.com

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