Art and Flow as Meditation

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 2, Part 9 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I just had a question on where creative expression falls in the spectrum? Because I think –

CTT: Where creative expression falls?

Student: In the past I feel like my mindfulness practices have been drawing. I find that that clears my head more than anything else. Is that a valid way of practicing this, or is this some form that isn’t as fruitful?

CTT: I can’t answer that very specifically because I’ve never been able to draw anything worth a damn! But I suspect that if meditation practices were really individualized to draw on an individual’s strengths and avoid their weaknesses, that you could discover in everybody some kind of thing that really helps them focus and turn that into a kind of meditation. The one thing you’d want to be careful of is can they generalize it into something that doesn’t depend on having the external props. Because if a crisis comes along, you can’t say “Wait a minute, Mr. Attacker, I have to get into the lotus posture here or get out my drawing materials in order to get my mind composed to deal with this in a more mindful sort of way.” 😉

You want to start generalizing that skill to focus out to life, but probably every one of us has something that really involves us. Look up the work of the psychologist Csíkszentmihályi on flow. Flow activity, I don’t know whether that is the same as meditation practice or not…

Student: It requires focus.

CTT: Or something like that. But what Csíkszentmihályi basically found is that people are very happy when they’re given a task that is demanding enough that they really have to concentrate to do it, but not so demanding that they can’t do it. We like to be pushed toward our limits, and function up at the high end, and we feel that things really flow. That’s clearly a desirable state. Whether it’s the same thing as what’s produced in meditation, I don’t think we know enough to make the comparison yet.


  1. I’ve been thinking about why the meditation thing seems to be helpful to me and about the best I can come up with so far is that it makes me feel normal. I’ve wanted to be normal for so long. I know, as Rocket pointed out, that there are some negative connotations to the word normal. But I think the idea of normal to me is really a sense of belonging.

    The NDE place felt normal in a way. It felt like home. Even though the experience seems pretty different from the perspective of this place, it seemed like everything was how it was supposed to be when I was there. It seemed pretty normal. And I felt like I belonged.

    The idea that creative activities, like drawing, are a sort of meditation makes a lot of sense to me. Drawing is something else that makes me feel normal. When I was a kid I really didn’t fit in very well. My grandmother encouraged me to draw and paint as a way of coping. I don’t think anyone back then would have suggested meditation as something a child should do, at least not in the environment that I grew up in. But drawing is a pretty good way of accomplishing some of the same goals, and kids are good at it. Plus if you are weird and artistic, somehow that is more acceptable. It’s almost normal. 🙂

  2. The way to turn many activity into meditation or mindfulness practice is to focus your attention on what you are doing rather than letting your mind wander into the past or future.

    There are also many other techniques. You can focus your attnetion on your movements noting each movement you make. (This is similar to the way Charles described how walking meditation is done in a previous post). Or, you may be able to use whatever technique you use in sitting meditation (ie. observing the breath, or repeating a mantra), during other daily activities like washing the dishes or taking awalk.

    It’s possible to meditate many hours a day this way, however I think that also means it’s possible to over do it. We also need time to integrate our experiences and this requires some amount of “normal” thinking about the past and future.

    1. The way to turn many activity into meditation or mindfulness practice is to focus your attention on what you are doing rather than letting your mind wander into the past or future.

      Anonymous, I don’t think about the past or future when I’m doing things that are meditative, but sometimes I do feel connected to them in a way. I often find when I’m sitting quietly in the park that I feel connected to all those other times I’ve felt the same way, doing similar things. Sometimes I even feel connected to how I’m going to feel someday. Like all those times feel connected to now.

      I don’t think I’m letting my mind wander into the past or future when that happens. I’m pretty sure I’m just being quiet inside and noticing now. It just seems like the other times and places become part of here and now when I do that. I’m not someone who over thinks things. I like how things feel, not so much emotionally, but physically. So it isn’t always easy for me to interpret what is going on, even if I’m pretty good at describing things. It feels like there is no time, and there is more time than I can imagine. I don’t know how one integrates such a feeling into daily life.

  3. Are creative people better at meditation? Is it harder for accountants to meditate than it is for landscape painters, for instance? Or is it just how good you are at being quiet inside?

    I’m also curious if there are any techniques to use when one is having a bad day when the world just keeps intruding. You know, you are sitting there trying to relax and concentrate on how your foot feels, but instead of how your foot feels, you think about the scary things you hear about in the news. Or about how much you miss your husband when he is away. Or about how annoyed you are at that guy who cut you off when you were driving home last night.

    Is there a way to calm down and get back on track, or do you just do the best you can at the time and hope to do better tomorrow?

  4. @Sandy: I’m also curious if there are any techniques to use when one is having a bad day when the world just keeps intruding.

    A theme that surfaces a lot in discussion of meditation is the “Am I doing it right?” or the “Why isn’t it working right?” question. You sit down to meditate, you have a desired state or condition as a goal, and you don’t experience much or any of that desired state. Now in some kinds of meditation practice – and remember the word “meditation” is used in the wide world to mean a zillion things, many of them contradictory – the attainment of a specific state or condition is indeed a goal. But in this ITP course on Mindfulness, there are two main goals, leading to a general third goal of psychological and spiritual growth. One goal is to strengthen one’s ability to focus, to concentrate, to stay within a certain range of mental functioning without too much mind wandering. The second goal, which is aided by some progress in the first, is insight, is seeing more clearly into the way your particular mind works, seeing deeper into your own nature. You have to develop some concentration ability to do this, it’s easier to see through a microscope if the hand you hold it with isn’t shaky. But insight is the main goal.
    So sometimes when you do some form of insight meditation, the main thing you see, with greater clarity or depth than usual, is just how crazy and screwed up and manic your mind is at that time! If you think the goal of your practice is experiencing a state of great peacefulness, then you’ll see this kind of meditation session as a “failure,” but if you have the goal of insight, then it’s progress to see more clearly exactly how your mind acts crazy. Those insights lay a foundation for more intelligent change later on in life.
    Of course it’s easy to say we want insight, and we do, but we also instinctively want happiness and peacefulness and feeling special, etc. As you’ll see later in the course transcripts, I’ll occasionally remind students that sometimes when they do the mindfulness practices they will feel real good. That’s nice, but feeling good is not the official goal. The truth of more clarity is the goal, and feeling good is a “side effect” of deeper insight. If you get attached to the feeling good, you will subtly change the nature of the mindfulness practice to making yourself feel good instead of working at seeing your mind more clearly…..
    This afternoon, e.g., my wife and I took a walk in a local park and I found myself fretting. I wanted to be having a very clear and satisfying and impressive experience of the nature around me, but this damn music kept running through my head (a Strauss waltz) and distracting me. Finally I realized that the reality of the now for me, then, was nature around me and my musical soundtrack playing inside, that’s how it was. If I relaxed and accepted it, instead of insisting that my experience had to be “special” and “meditative,” it was nice to be walking along the trail on a pretty day with a nice musical accompaniment….

    1. Dr Tart,

      I think I did change the goal from what was originally intended. I had started to see the meditation as a way to fix feeling badly for having anomalous experiences. That was why I was so frustrated today. I hadn’t been doing any meditation because I had been ill. Then I started feeling badly about having odd experiences again. I was mad at myself and I wanted a cure. I wanted the meditation to make me feel better.

      I tried meditating, but I was too distracted. My anomalous experiences kept intruding on my thoughts. I thought that maybe the meditation thing was not going to help anymore. It was nice while it lasted, but now I had to find a new solution to my problems.

      But I guess if the goal was insight, then maybe today wasn’t such a failure. I think my experiences might have kept on intruding because I’ve tried very hard to ignore them lately instead of dealing with them. I used to have a counselor available to discuss my experiences with, but he retired very recently and I miss him. I think I was trying to shut down in a very sneaky way, without actually admitting it to myself, because I’m a bit mad at my counselor for leaving. I know that’s stupid, and I truthfully wish him well. He has been incredibly kind and has helped me look for ways to honor what he calls a gift. But on some level I really did want to shut down almost as a way of getting back at him for not being there anymore.

      Now that I’ve admitted to myself that I was having these immature feelings, the internal chatter has quieted down a lot. I’ve also admitted to myself that sometimes I actually enjoy the anomalous experiences. For example, I did a reading for my counselor as a goodbye present. I wrote down what his colors and music were like, and what I thought they might mean. He was really impressed by what I came up with, and I felt good about doing that for him, even though I joked about it being silly psychic nonsense. Against my better judgement, I even passed along a message from a ghost for him. Which I know is nuts, but it made him and the ghost happy. But in a way, it made me happy too.

      Maybe the meditation thing will work out better tomorrow.

  5. There are many different goals for meditating and different types of meditation to accomplish those goals. I agree with what Charles wrote about insight. However sometimes some people just want to calm their mind. There are various ways to do this…

    -One simple method is just to meditate for a longer period of time.

    -If you have music running through your head, make that the focus of meditation – use it like a mantra.

    -Use different forms of meditation to help calm down. When the mind is turbulent use a type meditation that is more active. As you calm down, use successively more passive forms. In the Zen center I used to go to, in the morning practice, they would start with bowing practice, then do chanting practice, and then do sitting meditation.

    -Just sit and let your mind rant until you notice you can meditate. (You will get bored of its repeditiveness after a while. This is a type of insight and well worth observing.) Then start your timed meditation practice.

    -Have a balanced meal of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fats. All of these nutrients are necessary for proper brain function: protien for neurotransmitters, fats for cell membranes, and carbohydrates for energy. Try meditating 1 hour after eating. This will help calm you mind.

    -Try doing yoga or relaxation exercises before meditating.

    -When the mind is way out of control this can be due to fatigue. (Inhibitor neurons fatigue first. This is why factory workers during the worst of the industrial revolution would leave work after 16 hour days making the same repritive arm and hand movements they did all day on the assembly line.) If you’ve been using the mind all day long and it may be suffering from fatigue like this, try having a balanced meal (above) and then getting some sleep before you meditate.


  6. @anonymous: In the Zen center I used to go to, in the morning practice, they would start with bowing practice, then do chanting practice, and then do sitting meditation.
    I amusingly misread this for a moment as bowling practice…..Lovely to visualize all those Zen monks in the bowling alley…. 😉

  7. I was on a Zen retreat once and one of the participants was a yoga teacher. The instructor knew this and asked him to lead a yoga session as part of the retreat. I though it would be interesting to combine the Zen chanting with the yoga and put an act together. The robes we wore would serve as costumes. Then we could go on the TV program Star Search.

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