As someone who constantly rushes around, thinking of to-do lists, anxious about everything from global catastrophe to insignificant daily minutiae, I struggle to stop and engage with the moment. Swimming has helped, getting your head under water and having to focus on the breath otherwise you’ll drown is quite liberating for a serial over-thinker. But throughout my life I’ve rushed through galleries and museums, dismissing art that I don’t understand as ‘weird’, getting bored too quickly.
I’ve now been to three Take Notice sessions at the Manchester Art Gallery, first venturing in just for a 30-minute respite from the madness of work and life. Giving yourself permission to be still and quiet in the middle of the day is liberating – making that choice for body and mind to indulge in something out of the ordinary is incredibly powerful both for your wellbeing but your confidence too.
The Wellbeing staff at the gallery are not patronizing, but calm, and accepting. Guiding you through a sensory mindfulness meditation, followed by discussion, and peaking with a luxurious 10 minutes observing a different painting each session, they allow your mind to wander, gently bring it back to the moment, and help you to fully engage with the piece.
It’s a simple act, looking at a painting, but the difficulty comes with actually seeing it. Not just glancing through the faces, but paying attention to the expressions, the story, the colour. The textures of both the fabrics depicted, and the paint on the canvas itself. Not judging, but letting the imagery soak in. Enjoying the artistry whether or not it’s to your taste, just for the sheer joy of letting the mind take note of a new subject.
Three sessions in and I’m definitely no expert or guru – but I did find it easier the third time to get into the breath and body. I felt less distracted than previously, despite it being the run-up to Christmas, and I relaxed more readily. There will always be good and bad days, both in the gallery and in normal life. I still try to use these techniques, but as is always the case (and the point of mindfulness) life is busy and can get in the way if you let it. One week we were given apples identical to those in the painting, and were told to eat them mindfully. I hear you scoff! But getting back to the senses, enjoying the crunch, really tasting the food in a world where everything’s a fast convenience, is a novel experience. I have a pair of boots that slip if I’m not completely conscious of how I’m placing my feet.
It’s in these every day moments, whether walking down the road or engaging with art, that mindfulness plays its biggest role, and has its greatest impact.