Saturday, 9 January 2010
A friend and I were discussing the idea of mindfulness the other day, in relation to making things. Mindfulness is a simple idea which probably goes back to very ancient yoga practices in India (there is evidence for these practices long before 1500 BC...), and which some people may know about in relation to Buddhist thought. More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have been making it part of contemporary psychology. It consists 'simply' of allowing your mind to rest completely in the present, rather than letting it obsess and ruminate on past action and regrets, or busy itself with planning and scheming about the future.
This friend reckoned that when she was able to stay in a mindful state while doing something like making a cake, the cake turned out differently to how it normally would. Different, and better. I realised that this was the difference between the times that I had been able to paint and draw freely, had been at least partially satisfied with what was happening with my pencil, and the times when paper and pencil seemed like an alien land.
Then I realised that it was probably also why my jazz violin playing always sounded so awful. I was rarely able to rest within the limits of my technique; to accept my limitations and really listen to the sounds that I was producing. Instead my mind and emotions united into a paroxism of frustration at the difference between what I could hear in my head and what my stubby fingers seemed able to produce. Barry Green in 'The Inner Game of Music' (1986, related to the Timothy Gallwey book I mentioned a while ago) talks about this as being what he calls 'self 1' running riot with its commentary and criticism, as opposed to 'self 2':
an unthinking state, one in which we are relaxed yet aware, and our letting our true ability and musicality express itself, without trying to control and manipulate it (33).
My drawing or painting appears upon the page entirely differently when I'm in an attentive, generous and accepting state. The work is different when my mind is different. It's different, in a sense, when some aspects of my mind have switched off. This is not to say that my mind is somehow absent or blank (a common misconception in Anglophone countries about things such as meditation) - quite the opposite. What switches off is the ruminating and planning. What's left, when a mind is no longer running backwards and forwards away from the present, and how does this link to making things?