Live Art in the Age of Mindfulness

Time Magazine Cover

Time Magazine Cover (February 3, 2014)

On January 19, 2014 the NY Times published an article about mindfulness called “Breathing In vs. Spacing Out”  and on January 31, 2014 published Tony Schwartz’s essay “More Mindfulness, Less Meditation” critiquing the popularity – and popular misconceptions – of mindfulness.

We knew that mindfulness had become the new yoga when, on February 3, 2014, Time Magazine published a feature article on the mindfulness revolution and put a blissed out blonde millennial on the cover.

Personally, if the Mindfulness Movement can do for society what Transcendental Meditation failed to do, I’d be pretty excited. But what’s more likely is mindfulness – like Yoga and Transcendental Meditation and Kabbalah and all the “spiritual” fads that came before it – will be co-opted into a “lifestyle brand” and eviscerated of meaning in the popular imagination.

It’s not that it is inevitable, nor is is necessarily bad, but America has a knack for bending transcendence – or rather deep presence – to the will of the mercantile and transactional. Inevitably someone will figure out how to turn it into EST, and then transform it into Landmark. Eventually a national chain of  LuluLemon Boutique Mindfulness Centers will dot the suburban landscape from coast to coast and Subway Sandwich shops nationwide will offer low-calorie, low-carb, gluten-free, vegetarian Mindfulness Wraps.

There’s precedent, and it is cyclical. Even Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in their own ways, Americanized and aestheticized Eastern philosophy and spiritual practice.

I’m sure people more knowledgable than I have written extensively about this. In fact, in his NYT essay Tony Schwartz writes:

The problem with mindfulness as a starting place is that it’s an advanced practice. In traditional teaching, students first learned to stabilize their attention through “samatha,” or concentration meditation. Concentration involves focusing on a single object of attention, such as the breath or a mantra, as in transcendental meditation. Only when students learned to reliably quiet their minds – a process that often took years of practice – was the more subtle and advanced practice of vipassana introduced.

I, like many suburban Jewish  kids of a certain age and ilk, read  Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha when I was twelve and that got the ball rolling. Then it was On The Road and The Dharma Bums, Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen , Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the whole nine yards.

In college I was introduced to a more rigorous reading list, most notably Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness, that pushed me to expand my understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies, and also gave a glimpse into where we begin to move beyond difference into unity.

At the same time I was studying archetypal psychology and trying to deconstruct the Western, Christian cultural and philosophical biases Jung brought to his work. I started to dig more deeply into Jewish philosophy, particularly Buber’s I and Thou and Gershom Scholem’s classic introduction to Kabbalistic thought, On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead.

When I arrived in Seattle in 1990 I got a job at an “alternative” book distributor (that was later put out of business by Amazon, I think) and was exposed to more of these mindfulness and meditation books than you could shake a stick at. Every time a new title came out from Shambhala Publications, I made a point of picking up a review copy. The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh was a fave, because it was easy to schlep around.

I don’t  mention this subset of my interests and education too often because, frankly, I don’t want to appear muddle-headed and New Age-y, and I hate the smell of patchouli. I’ve met too many people who use these ideas either to construct an emotional cushion around their lives, to abdicate personal responsibility for their behavior or as an excuse to resist rigor. It has always been my belief that mindfulness and deep presence leads to more intentional action in the world, not withdrawal from it.

All of this is to say that I’ve always had a hyperactive, restless mind and as long as I can remember have been a bit astonished by the complexity of experience in and of itself. My desire to understand the nature of the Self as Perceiver, the construction of meaning from experience and to recognize the myriad factors that may distort our experience of “reality”, has given me ample reason to explore “mindfulness” over the years.

As I’ve gotten older and my head gets even more cluttered, I have to pay more attention to cultivating Quiet Mind. I’ve come to believe that part of what attracts me so strongly to the live arts – particularly dance, non-story driven theater, installations, immersive experiences and complicatedly constructed performances of all kinds – is that it provides opportunity to practice Quiet Mind.

I wrote passingly about this notion in a 2011 article on “Watching Performance as Spiritual Practice” and again in a 2012 article called “Some Thoughts on Attention, Language and Demand“. I touched on it again, obliquely, in the essay, “And Lose The Name of Elsewhere…” where I talked about going to see Miguel Gutierrez’ And lose the name of action again because the first time I saw it “… I was in no way prepared to offer the kind of attention that the piece demanded.”

It is very important to make a distinction about the nature of attention required by different works of live art,  and the difference in the qualities of attention required for making meaning in live experience, vs. mediated experiences (film, video, Internet) or in relation to an object (visual art).

When we attend conventionally “narrative” theater or dance, we tend to default to looking for – and expecting – “story”. We are told – and the underlying assumptions of popular, modern Western culture rigorously enforce this – that “stories” happen with a beginning, middle and end. That they have “characters” with “motivations” and that this is “realistic” or “naturalistic” because it is an accurate performance of how we experience the world and make meaning. By watching and listening to these “stories” and “empathizing” with the “characters” we will learn a lesson that either affirms our existing moral position and experience, contradicts it (and thus educates us in a new morality) or teaches us the “stories” of people different than us.

The problem is that this is complete and utter baloney. In this day and age any artist or audience’s unquestioning adherence to these archaic models is just kind of sad. But more on that some other time.

For my other blog, Ephemeral Objects, I’m working out some ideas about how to map the foundational concepts of Object Oriented Programming onto Live Art. An element of that project is the notion of performance as a Social Object, though any work of art can be a social object. You can imagine it something like this:

Art As Social Object

Art As Social Object

In this scenario the experience of the art object begins the first time you hear about it and ends when you stop thinking about it.

The performance – the moment where you are in a room with other people and an event is happening live – is the moment of deep engagement.

The notion of “Critical Horizontalism” that I’ve previously proposed is predicated on the notion that by reimagining spectatorship not in a “subject-object” relationship but rather “subject-subject”, we are in fact creating a third entity along a horizontal plane of intersubjectivity where the “performance” and the “spectators” become deeply enmeshed in the construction of a collective experience.

So what does this have to do with Mindfulness? Everything.

Once we expand our awareness of the performance itself as only a single moment along a longer arc of creative investigation, we are called upon to develop our skills of attention and intention, to cultivate the ability to enter into Deep Awareness.

In order to enter into Deep Engagement we must empty ourselves of the need for “story” and prepare ourselves to be present – in fact, co-present – with the “performance”. We must be prepared to receive what unfolds without expectation or judgement (in the moment) and hold our critical response until after the experience itself, when we can assess where we’ve been, what we’ve experienced and take the measure of the performance object by its qualities.

So in the spirit of the emerging Mindfulness Movement I offer the first (and probably only) edition of The Culturebot Guide to Mindful Spectatorship. (Loosely cribbed from the article “Meditation for Beginners” on


Pick A Specific Place

Some people will go to anything. Don’t. Really think about what performance you’re going to attend and why. Adjust your expectations accordingly, or better yet, try to not have any expectations whatsoever. And whenever you decide where you’re going, get there early, give yourself time to go to the bathroom, have some water, find your seat and get acclimated to your surroundings. Accept your surroundings.

Spectate with Purpose

Whether your reference point is Ranciere or Ramachandran, it is widely acknowledged that “spectatorship” is an ACTIVE process. The art of focusing your attention is hard work, and you have to be purposefully engaged. If you’re lucky the artists will have constructed an experience that is conducive to deep engagement, but they may demand more work than you initially prepared for. So cultivate intentionality, practice presence.

Stretch First

Physical stretching is never a bad idea, ever. But mental stretching is important, too. Turn off your phone, tablet, computer or other devices. Put away your book, newspaper or magazine. Take a moment to stretch your attention muscles, pay attention to the random thoughts that cross your mind and practice letting them go. Listen to the “noise” around you and let it become merely “sound”. Practice “going inward” and situating your “self” while increasing your 360-degree awareness of your surroundings.

Start with the Breath

Breathing deep slows the heart rate, relaxes the muscles, focuses the mind and is an ideal way to begin your practice.

Make Sure You Will Not Be Disturbed

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is not insuring peaceful practice conditions. Call the babysitter, go to the bathroom, drink water, turn off your phone, unwrap your candies, whatever. Most performances are under two hours long. Nothing is going to happen outside the theater that requires your attention. So let it go. You’ll be glad you did.


Do Not Stress

This may be the most important task and the hardest to implement. For true beginners with little to no experience of “contemporary” dance, theater, performance, etc., the urge to “follow the story” and “figure out what’s going on” will be overwhelming. You will resist, you might even panic. But don’t stress. Seriously. It’s all good.

Take a deep breath (quietly), and let it go. Just look at the performance. What are the bodies doing? What is the sound doing? Are they speaking? Not speaking? What is the light doing? How do the different bodies moving in space relate to each other? What thoughts, feelings and associations arise inside you, prompted by what you’re observing?

Don’t worry, there is no “right” answer, there only is what is. No attachment, no expectations, just be with your thoughts as you experience them, observe them, enjoy them, and let them go on their merry way. Understand that “it is what it is”, in the best sense of that phrase.

Feel Your Body Parts

While you’re sitting there, practice being in your body. Once your mind starts to quiet and you’ve established a level of attention to the performance, take inventory of your body from time to time. Depending on your predisposition different artistic forms will have different effects, but many people experience pleasant physical responses to dance, music and theater. You may feel a kinesthetic response that surprises you, you may want to sing or dance or act, you may find yourself projecting yourself into the performer, experiencing what they’re experiencing. Allow that to happen (quietly, in your mind) and allow that to activate your awareness of your physical self.

Notice Small Adjustments and Experiment With Them

The “bad” version of this is fidgeting when restless. The “good” version of this is to engage with what your body is telling you and how changing your posture affects your experience of the performance. Don’t go crazy, but play with it and see how you can deepen your engagement with the performance by shifting your posture or adjusting your attention for seeing, to listening, to feeling. Use ALL of your senses and expand your awareness, experiment with how adjustments help (or hinder) that expansive, quiet, perceiving mind.

Notice Frustration or Waning Interest

More experienced audience members will be familiar with this sensation. Personally I find it useful – if counterintuitive – to use this as an opportunity to go deeper. It is like learning to drive in the snow and knowing how to steer into a skid. All your instincts are telling you to do the opposite, you’re brain is screaming “Just get me out of here!” You’ll want to tune out, get frustrated and angry or make lists of things to do after the show. But actually, believe it or not, this is the time to notice what is happening, pick a single aspect and really go deeper. See what you can find. Part of my critical response practice is noting when my attention waned and writing it down. Later I try and figure out why that happened. In talking to artists subsequently I have found that those moments are frequently the same moments that the artist is least clear about, or least pleased with, too.


Practice Random Acts of Mindful Spectatorship

Finding your breath and being present is never a bad thing. So when you’re out and about in the world, breathe deep, practice non-attachment; release yourself from expectations, work to expand your awareness of being in space to 360 degrees and your sense of time into much longer arcs. Detach from the illusion of Self, amuse yourself by watching thoughts, ideas and feelings emerge, manifest and move on.

Look at the world and see the beautiful choreography of everyday life: the movement of people on the street, the cars driving by, the birds in the air; the sights, sounds and smells in which you are immersed, imagine each moment coming into Being and returning to non-Being and feel your Self within it all, moving too, a part of the everlasting present.

Read, Listen, Learn, Practice

If art is a way of being in the world, then one not need be an artist per se to be in the world artistically. Read about performances, artists and their work. Take some time to read a bit about the ideas that the artist mentions or that the performance references, learn about the context of the work and the artist, the presenting institution and the artistic discipline. Expand your awareness of the work beyond the moment of the performance, reach out into a longer arc of time in multiple directions, seek out the ideas the work contains and create your own connections.

Practice Together

Spectating with a friend, a partner or a group can have many wonderful benefits, and can improve your practice. Discuss how you want to work together as a group and stick to the plan.

Commit for the Long Haul

Spectating is a life-long practice and, just like making performances, is a life-long pursuit. Mindful Spectating is never perfect and never complete, it is a practice, a way of cultivating presence and attention in a controlled environment that, hopefully, carries over into quotidian life. If at first it feels funny, or strange, or difficult, stick with it. The practice is the product, it is its own reward.

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