How Art Galleries Can Help Us Practice

61H

Studies in art galleries have found that people generally don’t spend much time looking at artwork. The average viewing times vary from study to study, ranging from a glance of less than two seconds to up to 32.5 seconds, yet even the upper end of that scale doesn’t seem that long when we consider the amount of time and effort it takes to visit an art gallery in the first place. The Louvre in Paris estimates that people spend just 15 seconds admiring the Mona Lisa. This could be because the crowds of people make it hard to stop and look for longer, yet sometimes it might possibly be because we think we know what the Mona Lisa looks like and so we don’t take the time to admire her with fresh eyes.

Practicing mindfulness enables us to really appreciate our senses. Whether it’s listening to music, tasting or smelling food, enjoying how things feel on our skin or how colours and shapes look, we can use mindfulness to savour these moments; moments that, without mindfulness, are so easy to miss or take for granted. With mindfulness, these sensory experiences can be enjoyed as if they are new to us.

So when we visit somewhere like an art gallery, we can use our knowledge of mindfulness to heighten our sensory experience of the place. By remembering to slow down and really see what we are looking at, our visits can become enriching rather than routine.

The Gift of Sight

If we have the ability to see art then we have something precious to feel grateful for: our sight. It’s easy to take for granted something that has always been with us, and that we use every day without having to think about it. However, if we can take a pause from running on auto-pilot we have the opportunity to let gratitude into our hearts for this amazing ability.

We may realise that we have spent most of our lives never really seeing the colours around us. It might not be until we focus our attention on what our eyes are taking in that we start to notice subtle differences in tone or hue, the varying textures of paint on canvas, or the captured marks of brush strokes. Even statues that we walk past on the street every day could offer us something new and interesting, if we offer them our full attention. Feeling gratitude for our sight can help prevent us from skimming over life’s rich details.

Curiosity Creates Fresh Vision

In a fascinating talk, Dr. Ellen Langer demonstrates how what we see in an image is determined by what we already know about that image. She starts off by showing what looks like an abstract black and white image and asks the audience what they see. Some members of the audience say they can see a cow, and Langer responds by pointing out that the only reason they can see a cow is because they’ve already seen the image before and have had the cow pointed out to them. Sure enough, once the cow image is highlighted, it’s impossible to not see it any more, showing us just how much our senses are influenced by pre-existing knowledge or ideas.

Langer then goes on to describe the attributes of mindlessness:

“Mindlessness: an inactive state of mind characterised by reliance on distinctions, categories drawn in the past:

1) The past over-determines the present.
2) Trapped in a single perspective.
3) Insensitive to context.
4) Rule and routine governed.
5) Typically in error, but rarely in doubt.”

Dr. Langer’s approach is light-hearted; she uses examples of her own mindlessness to demonstrate her points, and makes it clear that just because we’re often mindless doesn’t mean that we’re stupid. Mindlessness is not something we ought to feel embarrassed or guilty about; it’s just human.

However, once we become aware that we are detached from the moment, and that our sensory experiences are being heavily influenced by the past or by a fixed perspective, we can remember to breathe, and re-focus on what’s right in front us.

In this context, a little doubt can come in handy! What would things look like to us if we weren’t so sure of what we knew or thought about them? This sense of curiosity acts as an antidote to our habitual ways of thinking and seeing. We can actively look for novelty, whereas before we might assume familiarity.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Painting

Art has the power to transform our lives, to give us new ideas, to prompt us to think differently about ourselves or the world. The way in which art does this is often subtle, requiring mindfulness on our part so that we may ‘hear’ its lessons or insights. This process of inspiration is entirely personal: the artworks themselves don’t contain any wisdom; these qualities exist in our relationship with them. We must be open, to allow space for it, in order for it to arise for us. That’s not to say that we go searching for deep meaning in every work of art we look at, just that if we gently and consciously cultivate a more open, mindful mind, what our eyes are seeing has more chance to inspire us.

 

Find out more about our mindfulness courses and workshops.

VIEW CALENDAR

Leave a Reply