Mindful Art and the Art of Mindfulness: a feedback loop.

On creative play and having a personal renaissance.

Imagine yourself indulging in one of your favorite creative pursuits, losing track of time. I think you know what I mean. If life has had you on high speed lately, you may have to think back a bit. So give yourself a little space to remember the last time you lost yourself in what you were doing and just be in that moment.

What are you doing? Noodling around with a poem? Doodling? Coloring? Are you wrist deep in clay?

You know the way you feel--the beautiful focus where nothing else exists and you are ‘in’ your creative process? Or maybe you ‘are’ your creative process. Where you sort of ‘become’ what you’re doing? Where work and play seem to merge and everything else drops away?

The Zen art table: calm and chaos in my living room.

The stillness of being sucked in by a creative pursuit is the reason my living room is held hostage by the 'art table:' a chaotic coffee table piled with markers, sketches, dinosaurs. I am constantly 'cleaning' the art table to no avail.


I love tidy, but you know what I love more? The silence that reigns supreme when both my children are intently drawing, creating, sketching. That stillness before whatever task is at hand. At first, my husband and I were simply thankful for the one time of day when no one is bouncing off the couch. The 'art table' seemed a small sacrifice.

My husband actually whispered - "Look! They can hold still"

But after a while we realized - we wanted in on that creative zen state too.

We wanted it back. Because really, losing yourself in creative pursuits belongs to all of us.

And here is one thing I've discovered and have been curious about ever since: 

Embarking on a creative endeavor and getting into that artful meditative state for just a little each day, sets off a positive feedback loop. 

In fact, I've wanted to know how one small creative step can lead to such surprising places since I tried out my creative journaling experiment. 

You could describe the creative feedback loop this way:

In a fortuitous circular dynamic, whenever you engage in a creative activity, you boost your level of positive emotion, which in turn literally widens your attentional range, giving you more material to work with.

--Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

Sometimes you just stumble on the right book at the right time…

The creative feedback loop — when small first steps lead you to surprising places.

Let me introduce you to a book that I found really helpful in describing what happens when you start out with the smallest creative step. (Although this book is about a lot more than that! Yes, I recommend it.) 

In the briefest nutshell, in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, behavioral science writer Winifred Galagher explores variations on a theme: you are what you pay attention to. She demonstrates (with quite a bit of research) that learning to train your focus in life can lead to health, meaning, and creativity.

When you look at the quality of your human experience as the sum of the things you pay attention to, mindfulness becomes a primordial tool for living - and, of course, a big theme in the book.

The whole book is worth your time, but let's zero in and explore the mindfulness of art and the positive feedback loop of creative endeavors.

Creative endeavors are mindfulness.

There’s a chapter in Rapt called “Creativity: An Eye for Detail” where Galagher looks into the research and views of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and begins a discussion on the mindfulness of art.

Here’s Galagher on the topic:

In (Langer’s) view, it’s not necessary to take time out to sit and meditate, which is, after all, a practice that’s designed to provoke postmeditative mindfulness. Instead, you can cut to the chase and just practice mindful attention. “This way of ‘meditating’ is fun, easy, and pleasant,” she says, and its consequence is the essence of being happy, effective, and healthy--no small thing.

Throughout the chapter entitled ‘Creativity: An Eye for Detail’ the discussion weaves back and forth between Langer’s research and the artistic practice of painter Mary Ellen Honsaker--an artist who paints realistic wildlife portraits. The mindful observation required in Honsaker’s art is a perfect illustration of two important points:

  • Mindfulness is essential to the creative process. After all, you can’t capture the details of a field mouse on a canvas without sitting and observing it for a while. Much like you can’t capture the smell of a lemon blossom in a poem unless you’ve spent time noticing how they work their magic.

  • Creative endeavors are a form of mindfulness training in themselves. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Honaker's habits--when she’s really deep in the painting process she can forget to eat. The way you might lose all notion of time when you work on a short story,work on a knitting project or build a bookshelf.

When art feeds your mindfulness and mindfulness feeds your art.

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What I enjoyed the most about this entire discussion was the permission it gives us. As I’ve written before, I find mindfulness a challenge, but I know how important it is for my writing. And, I’ll be honest, a good word to describe me when I attempt to meditate is “squirly.” (Not that I don’t keep trying.)

I’m glad there’s another path to concentration and stillness—the one where I’ve got a pen in hand (or my kids’ paintbrush and watercolors). Where my fingers are snapping over the keys as I draft a short story. Or where I’m smack in the middle of life being mindful of a moment I want to capture as I’m living it.

To practice mindful art, you don’t need goals, rules, reward or permission.

In her chapter, “Creativity: An Eye for Detail” Gallagher ultimately turns the discussion back towards psychologist and researcher, Ellen Langer’s own artistic pursuits. It turns out, she has a painting habit as well. Of her own painting she says:

“There was no reason to think I’d enjoy it, but I just began anyway. Now it’s something I do all the time….for most of us, the real reward of deciding to focus on writing poetry, playing classical guitar, or engaging in some other creative activity is not to achieve some official standard of proficiency but to embark on a personal renaissance.

A personal renaissance: that’s exactly what it feels like each time I grab my children’s art supplies and kneel down with them at the art table. Or when I weave a story or a poem and time stands still.

What if we gave ourselves permission to partake in our creative endeavors? What if we all said, “Excuse me, I’m having a personal renaissance,” and grabbed our pens, pencils, yarn?

It would be both fun and radical at the same time. The equivalent of simply saying, “I’m doing this because I want to. Because it has meaning for me, value to me. Because it brings me joy, and because that is all the justification I need.”

I’m off for a personal renaissance. Want to join me?

And let me just nod to the productivity-minded who are clearing their throats and preparing to say, “That’s nice, but how will you get anything done?”

The world is full of these voices. You know them. I know them. In fact, I think one of them lives in my own head.

Look at Langer’s creative (and productive) research in psychology. Look at Honsucker losing time but turning out plenty of paintings. Look around you at some of the most prolific people you know --in any sense.

What if the mindful play of art is exactly how you ‘get things done?’ And with an extra bonus: you get things done that matter to you.

What do you say?

Do you have a personal renaissance of your own underway—or in your plans?

What’s your own favorite way of losing track of time?

Have you experienced anything like this artful, mindful, feedback loop?

And…do you have any practice or reading recommendations of your own?

Let me know in the comments.