Self-awareness at the core of clarity, truth and the creative process
The term “mindfulness” is seemingly everywhere these days, as evidenced by the explosion in yoga and pilates throughout our culture. But is mindfulness new to the arts, or is this just a different way of thinking about the path toward creativity that artists have followed for centuries?
Below, M&M explores applications of this technique within four key areas of our nonprofit landscape: music, education, visual art and dance.
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Ted Nelson and Ixi Chen
Death metal, hip-hop and the intersection of mindfulness
Ted Nelson likes to listen to death metal on the drive downtown to play cello with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
“Not so much the Norwegian stuff. Metalcore is a good genre,” said Nelson in an interview at the Madeira home he shares with wife Ixi Chen, who plays clarinet with the CSO, and their son Max.
“I listen to hip-hop,” said Chen. “When I go down to play a concert, if I listen to hip-hop, I’ll get up for that concert.”
The act of centering themselves may span musical genres, but mindfulness is at the core of creation for both. They are also the artistic leadership duo behind concert:nova, a chamber ensemble that endeavors to create experiential dialogues using music as the centerpiece. The latest edition of their Music + Medicine series, “Beethoven’s Brain,” explores the cultural fascination with musical geniuses and mental illness and whether the two have a correlative link.
“Science seems to be a lot of data, and I guess superimposing that on creative pursuit is a very . . . Well, why are a lot of musicians also doctors? Why do people go into music or medicine? Is there something they’re trying to seek out?” asked Chen.
“I keep coming back to the truth, because musicians are trying to seek out the truth, aren’t they? That’s such a spiritual thing when you experience it, that to see its effects on a physical body is very interesting … to see a physical effect having a creative outcome is also very interesting.”
The previous iteration of Music + Medicine included functional MRI scans of Nelson’s brain, which were shown to the audience, as he listened to and mimed performing music. In addition, guest Brad Warner, a Zen Priest punk rocker, shared his journey with mindfulness and music. “Beethoven’s Brain” brings in neuroscientist Dr. Lily Wang and psychiatrist Dr. Maria Espinola to make a case study of Beethoven, with the goal of determining whether his many documented ailments had any influence on his creative output.
“There are a lot of theories about what caused his deafness, what caused him to be such an irritable jerk, why he couldn’t keep a girlfriend,” said Nelson. “These are all sort of tied together, and I think get expressed in one way or another through his music. Do all of these factors actually have any effect on who he was as a composer, as a creator?”
The Mozart Effect, much discussed (and eventually debunked) following a study published in 1993, asserted a link between listening to Mozart and higher intelligence. Turns out, Chen said, any music someone engages with positively will increase cognitive ability.
So while locating creativity’s starting point might not be as simple as listening to Mozart, mindfulness remains a practice that can help generate the clarity from which to create.
“Personally, mindfulness is about awareness,” said Nelson. “When you’re in meditation, you’re practicing being aware of something in a really simple setting. But when you’re sitting down to, say, practice your cello, you are taking a tremendously complex activity and applying all of your awareness to it … a lot of that is about awareness … I’ve always thought of that as a very mindful practice.”
“You practice so you don’t have to think when you perform. So that you’re in the flow of performance, where you’re not giving yourself verbal commands, but you’re present with your colleagues and you’ve prepared so that you can not think and just flow through the piece with its emotions or its intensities.”
Music + Medicine: “Beethoven’s Brain,” April 30-May 1, 8 p.m., Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Sabin Auditorium – Location D
The power of noticing
Every weekday morning at more than 100 schools across Ohio and beyond, students and teachers listen to classical music and are encouraged to notice how it makes them feel. It’s part of founder Stacy Sims’ project, Mindful Music Moments.
“It allows all of the students and the teachers to basically have a moment in which they get to celebrate both their interiority, imagination, breath, while listening to a gorgeous piece of classical music,” said Sims, a writer and educator who also founded True Body Project and City Silence.
“They get to have three minutes, four minutes every day to experience what stillness, contemplation, noticing feels like.”
Mindfulness Music Moments officially got underway in 2017, and has reached more than 50,000 students. Locally, the program partners with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Opera for musical selections.
“The mindfulness practice I have come to appreciate through mindful movement first and then a meditation practice tends to be focused on body-based awareness,” said Sims, a long-time mindfulness practitioner. “When we have chronic stress or trauma, that is first and foremost a physiological condition. It is a state, not a trait.”
During a 10-week after-school program in 2015, Sims observed that state as being particularly burdensome for students and for educators whose resources were already stretched thin.
“I was able to hear the morning announcements and think, ‘Oh, what if we were able to use that bandwidth so then only one person has to push a button?’” she said.
The goal is to create a cultural tradition of learning and listening, integrated into the in-house education experience; a time specifically for noticing and awareness.
“Awareness meditation is not not thinking. It is being able to have a noticing practice of your thoughts, of your body responses, your physiological responses, with a very curious, open and loving attunement practice,” she said.
Mindful Music Moments also has launched a new partnership with The On Being Project, a media and public life initiative focused on deep thinking, Mindful Poetry Moments. Participating schools can utilize recorded poetry from poets featured in On Being, accompanied by mindfulness prompts. Sims is also looking toward future partnerships with healthcare and hospitals or patient-caregivers.
It begins with breath
Denise Burge’s mindfulness practice starts with a breath. The artist and University of Cincinnati art professor sits on her back porch with a cup of coffee and counts 70 breaths. Counting keeps her focused in the moment and trains her mind, which is essential in her approach to art-making.
“Art is a training of the mind more than anything else, trying to access your own intuitive creativity, just to focus your mind, learn how to use your mind,” she said.
Long drawn to the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence and the interconnectedness of all beings, Burge began engaging with mindfulness in earnest after her husband’s cancer diagnosis in 2013. He is in remission, but Burge found meditation helped them both stay centered when waiting for an operation or a test result, to live not in the future or past, but in the present.
“It ended up being really useful, and it felt like a deepening of that philosophy I’d always held about life and death,” she said. “But I had to put it into practice in a big way.”
That time in hospitals helped prepare Burge for the strong internal reaction she experienced, while on an artistic residency in New Orleans, to what she calls the city’s post-traumatic spaces in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“The shock, the scars are still there. But you also develop a new appreciation for things. Any trauma like this causes you to rejoice in the scars that bring you to a greater level of compassion, and that’s ultimately a Buddhist concept,” she said.
The art she started to make following the residency became grounded in that resiliency. Burge’s output includes large-scale paper and fabric (quilt) work.
“When I make work as an artist – you’re always working with your intuition,” she said. “(In New Orleans) I’ll go into these neighborhoods and just bike without any plan and just in a mindful way just pay attention to what I notice … the quilts I make now also have a quiet quality. I really think of them as meditative spaces.”
Ian Timothy Forsgren
Mindfulness is an “everyday thing” for dancer, teacher and performer Ian Timothy Forsgren, but it wasn’t always. He came to movement as a form of expression later than most dancers, beginning the study of dance technique as a student at Northern Kentucky University. A class with choreographer and DANCEFIX founder Heather Britt led to a deeper understanding and love of movement.
“When we talk about dance and movement, I always gravitate toward things I can feel are coming from an internally genuine place,” said Forsgren.
His base of performance and movement-oriented work is broad. Forsgren teaches for DANCEFIX. He is a dancer and teacher with Pones Inc., a dance and performance art collaborative. He teaches yoga and Pilates, and he’s a reiki practitioner.
“You can’t be successful in any of those practices without having that clear mental focus, and those practices help you create space for that,” said Forsgren. “The practice of yoga, you are undoing the mind and you are undoing the body. Pilates is for balancing out the musculature of the body. Reiki … clears the energy body. It’s essentially meditation at the same time.”
Recently, Forsgren was accepted into a dance intensive in New York City, studying the Gaga technique with members of the Batsheva Dance Company. Developed by Ohad Naharin, Gaga is characterized by body awareness, intuitivity and sensitivity.
“Gaga, to me, is essentially getting in touch with the sensitivity of the body, really becoming grounded and connected with the internal sensations of the body and beginning to explore ways in which you can soften, in which you can open, finding different ways and patterns of moving,” said Forsgren.
“I have learned throughout these techniques to be able to stay in a place of awareness, so if I am feeling lethargic, okay, then, they say this in Gaga technique: find the pleasure in the exhaustion. Find the clarity instead of creating more mental drama.”