Living and Painting with Intention

The Mindful Way to Art and Everything Else

I could feel myself spiraling into a depression recently, so I Googled “TED Talk Depression.” That’s how I found a speech by Zindel Segal on the mindful way through depression.

I’d listened to the audiobook of the same name several times before, but never found it helpful. I always found mindfulness inaccessible, a language I understood but could not speak. 

Segal’s TEDx Talk helped me understand mindfulness in a new light.

The mindful way through depression: Zindel Segel at TEDxUTSC

His approach starts small, with daily body scans and mindful eating. Little practices to reroute neural pathways away from narrative circuts and into awareness. 

In her memoir Attention: A Personal History of Finding Focus (or Trying To), author Casey Schwartz writes, “Paying attention takes you outside yourself. Paying attention can turn any situation, however pointless, however painful, into sheer human richness.”

Upon first reading this, I wrote in my journal:

Well it depends, doesn’t it? If you’re paying attention to something outside yourself, then yes. But isn’t this too a form of inattention, to one’s own inner experience? Attention must be selective. To take in all things at all times would be madness. Attention is a beam of light pointed here, now there.

Perhaps it’s not enough to simply pay attention. Perhaps you have to pay attention outside of oneself, outside the mire of one’s thoughts and emotions. But can the two exist separately from each other? Can you experience the outside world without also experiencing the qualities of your own lens?

This line gets muddled every time I embark on a mission to meditate, slow down, bring peace back into my life. My desire to improve my own awareness morphs into something masochistic. I find myself suffering from some emotional excess, and I cling to the experience of that suffering and try to be with the pain, even though it feels like pressing my palm to a hot stove. And of course I finish never wanting to repeat the experience. I avoid, resist, procrastinate, all the while feeling guilt for not being strong enough, determined enough to make meditation work.

I felt redeemed when, later in her book, Schwartz quoted the English psychiatrist Edward B. Titchener, who said that “The problem of attention is essentially a modern problem. Attention always contained within itself the conditions for its own disintegration, it was haunted by the possibility of its own excess – which we all know so well whenever we try to look at or listen to any one thing for too long.”

Given all that, Zindel’s gentle approach made sense. It helped me realize that I’d skipped a crucial step during my botched attempts at mindfulness. In diving headfirst into difficult emotions, I’d missed the low-stakes daily practice that sets the foundation for harder work. 

Even the low-stakes daily practice feels hard, I admit. I recognize the need to get centered, but I don’t know where to start. If I try to follow my breath I get swept off course almost immediately. I spiral into thought, then into some impulsive action, and then the whole day gets away from me. 

I’ve found it helpful to approach this mindfulness practice as though I am creating sense memories: I am not fixing my depression or staving off anxiety. I am simply noticing the present moment: the morning light illuminating the bookshelves, the ticking of the house settling around me, the rumble of a faraway plane. 

These sense memories beget writing and painting. They are vignettes I capture in my body, yes, but also, increasingly, on paper, on canvas panels. 

The Mindful Way Workbook lists three fundamental skills to prevent “attentional hijacking:” 

  1. Direct attention to the place you want it to be (engage)
  2. Sustain attention so that it remains in place for the time you want it to stay (stay and explore) 
  3. Shift attention away when you want to (disengage) 
Contour drawing of flowers, with quote from  “Paint What You (Want to) See” by Charles Reid
Contour drawing of flowers, with quote from “Paint What You (Want to) See” by Charles Reid

These are the same skills required for successful artmaking. 

In the book Paint What You (Want to) See, Charles Reid writes: “Using oil is not an excuse to be careless in your color and value choices. You can’t think, ‘I can always overpaint later; now I’m just trying to get the general idea.’ You can’t just let the paint build up; you must make every decision count.”

From the book Oil Painting Secrets from a Master by David A. Leffel and Linda Cateura: 

“Make each brush stroke describe your intention. … If you begin by painting carelessly, with slapdash strokes, you’ll find it more difficult to move into more careful painting. … With each paint application, with each stroke, do the ‘finished’ picture.”

What is my finished picture? 

To inhabit my body. To be free from striving. To be present in the world. And in doing all this, to know God. 

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