The Art of Looking: exploring mindfulness with Year 6s and Van Dyck
Cathy Fortune, artist and Mindfulness teacher writes about The Art of Looking
The Art of Looking was a learning project to accompany the National Portrait Gallery’s #ShowVanDyck touring exhibition which featured the artist’s last self-portrait. The participants were a group of adults from mental health services and a class of year 6 children. The sessions were a combination of mindfulness and making in response to the exhibition.
Like the back of your hand
The first mindfulness practice involved noticing the hand, adapted from work by Russ Harris. People are invited to spend 5 minutes looking at their hand as if seeing it for the first time. The question is can you still be interested in what you are looking at by the end of the 5 minutes? The answer was yes! The group of year 6 students were particularly fascinated by the part of the practice where they were invited to observe the line along the side of the index finger where there is a join between the two different sorts of skin that cover the top and the palm side of the hand. A buzz of excitement broke out around the group, “look at mine,” “look at yours.”
Of course we had the benefit of novelty in this first exercise and mindfulness practice is about being with all the other mundane and even unpleasant stuff as well.
Heads turn and eyes wander but this is ok
By the time we got to the Van Dyck for the second and third time you could see the novelty, interest and focus beginning to fade. We were trying a slightly longer practice with the painting, just to see what would happen. Some children stayed looking diligently, well trained, others began to drift. When adults’ attention drifts from the focus of their practice, they discreetly wander off inside their own heads…next year’s holiday…my knee hurts…I wonder if John’s set off yet?, etc. But when the year 6s began to drift it was a physical thing. First the eyes wandering around the room, then a turn of the head, shortly followed by the body, until they were turned around looking at me standing at the back of the group. It was a little unnerving to have this increasing number of pairs of eyes looking at me (the strange woman asking us to look at something we have already seen) instead of the painting. Time to change the practice guidance. I said,
Just to see what it’s like this time
“Can you notice where your attention is right now? You don’t have to change where it is, just notice it. It might be still on the painting, or you might find you’ve drifted off to something more interesting. This is ok. It’s what our minds do. It’s what all minds do. Yours, mine, your teacher’s mind, your parent’s mind, Van Dyck’s mind. And often we get told off for not concentrating, not paying attention, daydreaming, but really this is what are minds are designed to do. That’s what makes us creative and able to make amazing artwork like this painting. We can’t stop the mind wandering, we can’t stop random thoughts popping up and pulling us away…but what we can do is notice that this has happened and then gently and kindly bring our minds back. Let’s all try that now. Let’s recognise that we’ve wandered away and just see what it’s like to bring our attention back. Even if we notice some resistance to doing this, some thoughts of, “not that old boring thing again, I’ve looked at that”, what’s it like just to do it anyway, just to see what it’s like this time.”
And, as if by magic, they slowly turned around, one by one to look at the painting again. OK, there were a couple of children who stayed staring at me instead, but that’s ok too. It’s good to know when you’ve had enough.
What was lovely to see was that moment when they realised that they had a choice. Because what we are teaching in mindfulness practice is that what we choose to do next, matters a lot more than what we did last.