Art as a Spiritual Practice | Stephanie Smith | TEDxLehighRiver


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven The word “spirituality” means many different things
to many different people. So just for today, I’m going to define it as the process
of getting to know yourself so you can in turn
get to know what’s bigger than you. A spiritual practice
is typically a solitary activity, one that helps you to grow
towards your highest self through contemplation and self-reflection. So, what do you think
a spiritual practice looks like? Does it look like this – symbol of prayer and devotion? Or maybe it looks like this – like a silent mediitation. Or perhaps it’s this – to study or read scriptures
or self-help books. Well, in reality, a spiritual practice
can look like pretty much anything. So with that thought in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the idea that your spiritual practice
could look like this. And so now, if you’re thinking, you know,
I can’t do that, I’m not an artist, I can’t even draw a straight line, please believe me, I know where you are – that was me too. Just hang with me for a bit, if you will. This image depicts a mandala,
which is a sacred form of circular art. It’s typically represented as having symmetrical patterns
that radiate from the center out. The word itself is Sanskrit,
which is an ancient Hindu language, and it’s sometimes pronounced “mundala,” and the word itself means,
loosely translated, “whole” or, like, “complete.” A little more literally,
it means “circle.” And I first became aware
of the mandala as a spiritual practice about 10 years ago, when I wasn’t an artist, and I really just, maybe,
liked to doodle a lot. This was at a time when I
was really eager to grow and transform past unhealthful habits
and patterns and self-limiting beliefs, and I was no stranger
to using a wide variety of methods in order to make this happen. I’d used reflective writing
and conscious breath practices and drumming and chanting
and guided meditation and you name it, but it was a single image on the internet that had changed my entire life
pretty much forever. The image, which looked
somewhat similar to this – it was a simple mandala drawing, and what had really got me was the way that the artist had described
the mandala as a meditative process. It was typically done in one sitting, that you started at the center, worked your way out and stopped when you were finished. This is describing a process
and not a product, and I was really intrigued because as I much as I’d always loved art, my inability to draw or paint
had kind of kept me away from it. This mandala-making method,
it was my way in; it was a way for me
to express myself through art without regards to technique or skill. You could use the simplest
of mark-making techniques, from little dots and simple
shapes and little lines, because nothing had to be
representational or even intricate. You didn’t even need
any special materials to make them, although if you’re like me, you can go to the art supply store
and try and buy pretty much anything because anyone can buy art supplies – like, you don’t need
to be an artist to do that. So, true story. I really struggled to read a ruler. I’m one of those people who can maybe measure five times
and still cut it wrong. And while I know
there are people out there who really enjoy making mandalas
using a ruler and a compass, I’ve kind of found, ironically,
as a perfectionist, that I really prefer to work free hand because it seems somewhat easier to kind of let go of all quality rather than to try to work so precise. And this led me to discover that when you focus
on the process of art-making, or pretty much on the process of anything, over the quality of your efforts, you’re beginning to practice mindfulness, which author Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “an openhearted, moment
to moment, nonjudgmental awareness.” But you know, since we’re human,
there’s going to be times when an unintended mark
will make its way onto the page, and these are the moments
that will teach you about yourself because, you know – when you see
how you treat yourself. And what I usually do
when this happens to me is that I’ll take that opportunity and I’ll repeat it seven, eight
or ten more times around the circle and just make a new pattern from it, and then I move on. When you resist the urge
to beat up on yourself, you begin to cultivate the practice,
the ethical practice of ahimsa. Ahimsa is another Sanskrit word, and it means “non-harming,”
or “non-violence.” It’s one of the foundational concepts
in the system of yoga and in several other
prominent spiritual teachings. And in a world where I find it really easy
to be extremely hard on myself sometimes, this practice has been
life changing for me because it’s allowed me,
through art-making, to find true moments of peace away from my harsh inner critic. So needless to say, I wholeheartedly adopted this practice, and about 3,000 mandalas later, when a good friend of mine suggested that maybe I begin teaching
this practice to others, I began to study the history
of the mandala in depth. The first thing I found is what
a lot of people are most familiar with, which are the colorful,
geometric sand mandalas that the Tibetan Buddhist monks create, and they do this to raise consciousness
and as a way to heal humanity – which is pretty cool, right? And then the more that I looked, the more I found other forms
of sacred circular art – some thousands of years old – and I found them cross-culturally
and all over the world, from ancient Greek labyrinths to Navajo sand paintings and giant Guatamalen kites,
like 30- to 60-feet high, that are flown to honor the dead. And then I looked to nature, where you can find mandalas
pretty much everywhere, from the rings of a tree
to snowflakes and spiderwebs, to the bloom of a flower, all the way down to the cells in our body. And this led me to think about how the mandala form could be a symbol
of our connection to each other and maybe even a link to something bigger. And then there’s Carl Jung. Carl Jung was a famous
Swiss psychoanalyst, and he’s largely credited with bringing the Eastern concept
of the mandala to the West, just about 100 years ago. And Jung would use the mandala – For a period of about one year, he would actually use the mandala: he would draw or paint one
every single day as kind of like a way
to check in with himself because he believed that the mandala was reflective
of the moment that we create them in. He also believed that they were
kind of like a path to our whole self. And I know when I don’t have
anyone to talk to or I can’t get my thoughts together
to express myself on the page, that if I draw a mandala, that it’s really easy to help
kind of like transform that energy and work through whatever thoughts and feelings
that I wanted to work through. It’s also really, really good
to help calm down the monkey mind. So, armed with a bit of knowledge
and some experience, I began to teach. While I’ve always offered this process
as accessible to anyone, I’ve especially really enjoyed
working with people who felt like, you know,
they want to learn and they want to grow, but they’ve had some kind of – like they felt like art-making
has been a major obstacle in their lives because something somewhere along the way
kind of shut them down to it. And I find that when they’re able
to meet that resistance and get comfortable enough
with the process to set aside whatever kind of
self-defeating judgments they might have over the quality of their actions, they’ll go all in, and then they become really open to all of the benefits
that art-making has to offer as well as all the benefits from having
a meditative and self-reflective practice. One of the things that’s been really cool,
to me, in sharing this process is when someone will come back to me, like a student will come back
to me a year later with sketchbooks just filled with mandalas and offering a deep gratitude for a process that has
so positively impacted their lives. You know, there was a recent study
at Drexel University where researchers found that art-making, regardless of skill, can actually help to reduce stress. And like, who can’t use that, right? And some of the other benefits
from art-making can include increased focus
and concentration, ability to problem-solve, increased critical-thinking skills. And these are all things
that are easily transferable into so many different areas of our lives, especially if you’re looking
to become more self-aware. As a young child
growing up in the early ’70s, what I knew about spirituality could probably be summed up
in just a few words, which were to obey without question, which is a little unfortunate
because I was kind of born asking “why?” I wanted to know, you know,
the way the world worked and why people did and said
the things that they did, and this wasn’t always
necessarily endearing to my parents and my teachers
and future employers. But if you create 10,000 mandalas, or if you do 10,000 of anything, you really can’t help
but to grow from that process. I think if there is like one
really big takeaway for me, it’s that we all really need a way to be able to express ourselves
without judgment. Like we need to be able to have a thought
or a question come into our minds without thinking that we
are in some way wrong for it. You know, as a meditative process, I feel like this has helped guide me to take better care of my body,
my mind and my soul. And as an artful practice, I feel like it’s allowed me to acknowledge
my desire to become a better artist while continuing to honor and value
the journey over the destination. And as a spiritual practice, I feel like it’s really helped me
learn to let go, to surrender, to become more patient
and tolerant and compassionate. It’s even led me to discover
a system of spiritual beliefs which closely aligned with the one idea
I’ve been carrying with me my entire life, since I was like a really little girl, and that is that we’re all connected to
and part of something bigger, that we aren’t separate from it. Right now, I’d like to show you
a brief video with a small sample of some of the work I’ve done
over this last decade in the pursuit of spiritual growth. Right now, I’m inviting you to look
at art-making in a whole new way. With a desire to learn and grow, all you really have to do is show up, and you can’t do it wrong. Whatever you have
to bring to the table is enough because you are enough. I give you permission and I encourage you to go out and grab
some supplies and materials and to begin creating, either through this or perhaps another type of expressive
or process-based art practice so you can get to know your highest self and maybe, just maybe,
what’s bigger than you. Thank you. (Applause)

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