Vermont Studio Center: Meditation House
The Vermont Studio Center has a building devoted to meditation 24 hours per day, and a group meditation begins every morning at 7:30, for those who are so inclined. I’m a beginner when it comes to meditating but in the spirit of rejuvenation and sparking the creative spirit, I resolved to meditate on a regular basis.
The Meditation House is just behind the Red Mill, and on the first two mornings, I walked through the dewy grass in the cool early morning light to get there.
These meditations aren’t guided, which means that although the group sits together and may begin and end together, there is no further structure, no guide who provides instruction, leads the group or makes suggestions for a focus point.
As a beginner, structure is helpful for me since I don’t have the discipline yet to get my mind “there” without it. Left on its own, my mind was like a puppy, playfully scampering all over and not doing what I wanted it to do, which was to sit still.
I’m borrowing this analogy from Jon Gregg, who, along with his wife Louise von Weise, founded the Vermont Studio Center. In fact, I stole the analogy outright from a talk he gave on meditation and creativity. After my two meandering meditations, I hoped he might be able to enlighten a beginner like me about the necessary discipline, and shed light on how meditation might help in making artwork.
Jon said that our brains process about 90,000 thoughts per day. I did the math–that’s more than one per second, including during sleep. Because our brain will look for more “good” thoughts, and try to avoid more “bad” ones, we might often find ourselves caught up in circular arguments, overthinking, and/or getting wound up by our emotions. At the very least, this gathering and pushing away takes alot of energy.
The over-analytical and over-emotional habits that our brains have developed can lead us to create melodramas for ourselves. One example that he gave goes like this:
A resident at VSC feels the signs of a cold coming on. The resident says No way. I can’t believe this. I made such careful plans to come here and counted on it. I took time off from work. I spent all day on the train to get here. I’m going to lose a whole week and I’m not going to feel good and how am I going to make the special soup that I always have when I get sick. I’m going to be wasting time. I’ll get less work done. I’m off-schedule already. Etc etc.
These circular and anxious conversations are a familiar scenario to me. They don’t accomplish anything. This person is still going to have the cold, and hasn’t done anything to accept it or get over it. Anyway, the cold will go away on its own and life will go on.
Related to artistic production, Jon said that these types of (often internal) conversations can also be constricting. The anxiety can be directed not only toward the mark-making that you do as an artist, but also toward who might be watching. This could include what someone who is casually walking by the studio might think if they happened to catch a glimpse of a piece that’s in an unfinished, vulnerable state (guilty). This could be something entirely imaginary, such as what would your advisor from grad school say if he saw you working this way (guilty). Or something really far-fetched and non-productive, like how does this mark fit into art history as a whole (guilty). Guilty guilty guilty!
Why should an artist be worrying about any of those things, when the first order of business is actually to commit that mark to paper/canvas/etc. If you haven’t even done the work yet, you can’t be worried about who might see it and what they might think if they did.
Where meditation can apparently help with ending these circular conversations is to keep you grounded in the present because it’s about awareness and noticing things. If you’re quiet enough to see what’s going on, then you’ll notice things. And if you notice things, you get a little distance on the situation and you can step back.
You’ll notice when you’re having an unproductive conversation with yourself and step back from it. Notice when you’re getting wound up over nothing and step back from it. Notice when you’re being anxious and circumspect about what mark or color to put down next, and get over it.
This noticing and being aware of the present is supposed to allow you to be where you are, if that makes sense, whether that’s in the studio or not. Whatever you’re doing, free it from other narratives. If you’re chopping wood, you’re chopping wood. If you’re carrying water, you’re carrying water. If you’re painting, you’re painting–not worrying about what might happen later, outside of the studio and beyond your control.
Jon said meditation allows you to pare things down to you and what’s essential. Meditation clears out the channel, so to speak, so that can happen, by allowing you to recognize how much you typically clog the channel with thoughts.
In essence, he said it allows you to get out of your own way.
Your breath is your reference point, and paying attention to it creates a dialogue with yourself. Just you, not anyone else.
Sit down (for me, laying down is not an option since it would lead to sleep) and straighten your spine. Don’t be tense. Your jaw should be loose. Hands can go on your knees or be clasped in your lap. Eyes can be open or shut. It’s not about suffering; you can move if necessary. There are less “rules” than I thought. A religious component is not necessary. Candles are not necessary; they were used only because there was no electricity once upon a time. Incense is not necessary; this was used only because people didn’t bathe once upon a time.
Make the body calm. Still the internal chatter.
Your breath will slow naturally. Pay attention to it going in and out. Focus on that. If your mind starts wandering, go back to noticing your breath and don’t berate yourself for having strayed.
Meditation is sometimes called the art of starting again, and I’m not sure if that’s facetious.
After that pep talk, we did a group meditation for ten minutes. Here’s how my meditation went:
A light tap on a metal bowl to signal the start of the meditation. A beautiful, deep sound.
I breathed, and thought about my breathing, as instructed. So far, so good.
I felt the cool air going in and out of both nostrils. Excellent. Excellent noticing, and actually, an excellent sensation. Being able to breathe well through my nose is a novelty for me, since until last month, I couldn’t take in any air through my left nostril.
Noticing this made me think of my ENT, Dr. Stacey Silvers, who performed the surgical procedure.
Uh oh, a meandering thought. No problem, though.
Start again. Still noticing the breath, but disproportionately noticing how it feels in my left nostril. This brings me back to the surgery. Bloody bandages.
Start again. My nose still hurts a little sometimes, but not too much.
Start again. I’ve gotten past the surgery now, but Jon’s talk has reminded me of some recent melodramas I’ve created.
Start again. Jewelry shopping.
Start again. I can hear others breathing.
Start again. My right thigh twitched.
Start again. Stencilling letters.
And so it went, until the gong sounded again to signal the end of the meditation.
The puppy and I need more practice. Stay tuned.