In the same pivotal year, 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn started the Mindfulness movement by founding his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Walter Burke Barbe et al pioneered the theory of differentiated learning styles. They identified three learning modalities: Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic, known by the acronym VAK. In 1987, Neil Flemming added Reading/Writing as a fourth style, which Howard Gardner more appropriately broke in to Linguistic and Logical styles in his definitions of multiple intelligences. Although the idea of students having different learning modalities was a popular educational theory for almost thirty years, it has recently fallen out of favor because, in direct contrast to the mounting evidence to support Kabat-Zinn’s ideas, there has been very little neuroscience to support the Styles of Learners hypotheses. Instead of separating and labeling students by learning styles, it is more appropriate and effective to integrate all of the types of experiences in the classroom. This newer theory of integrated experiential instruction based on the five learning styles (the original VAK plus Linguistic and Logical) is naturally suited to teaching both Contemplative Art and Mindfulness.
Any creative activity which affords the participant the opportunity to be fully present with their feelings, intent, the material and the product is Contemplative Art. The argument can be made that until the Renaissance and the rise of portrait and landscape painting, all art forms were religious and inherently contemplative. Cave paintings, music, calligraphy, sculpture, stained glass, ikebana, literature, the tea ceremony, medieval mystery plays- from primitive times to the rise of humanism all creativity celebrated the idea and image of the Devine as understood in the creators’ cultural context. Most great artists in any field would still say that the element of immersion in their process and the investment of their feelings and personal attachment is critical whether their subject is religious, secular or even abstract.
This meditative aspect of creation is what defines Contemplative Art as a Mindfulness Practice and is not only the domain of the genius. Any person of any age can use mindful creativity as a form of meditation. Children do it intuitively and the popularity of adult coloring books reflects how many people want to reconnect with that part of themselves. In Waldorf schools, watercolor painting and modeling with beeswax are taught as contemplative practices from preschool. In Montessori classrooms there is always an art area where the focus is on the process not the product because the actual product is the development of the child’s inner life. Since the mid-1940s when psychologist Margaret Naumburg began referring to her work as Art Therapy, the field has spread to hospitals, clinics and schools all across the country. Because the goal of developing awareness through the immersion in a certain type of consciousness is the same with Contemplative Art and meditation they can be woven together seamlessly in any Mindfulness Practice.
Many art forms from ancient eastern Tantra to modern performance art focus on the experiential, the process and somatic awareness. Somatic awareness is the information we receive thru our felt senses and goes way beyond the tactile sense of touch to include the whole neurological system, our awareness of our bodies moving thru space and those intangible feelings we often label “gut reactions”. Somatic experiences rely on input that is kinesthetic, visual, auditory and beyond. Incense can add another sensory layer to meditation as can a finger labyrinth or even a “worry stone”. Mindful Eating even engages the taste sense. Savasana from yoga or a “body-scan” in secular mindfulness practices both bring awareness to the subtleties of somatic awareness.
Probably the most recognizable and easily duplicated example of somatic experiential art is the work of Jackson Pollock. Children as young as toddlers can feel the connection between their inner and outer life when provided with a large piece of paper on the floor, some paint and jazz music. This activity is just one simple example of a Contemplative Art and Mindfulness exercise which integrates different styles of learning- the Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic. To involve older students who are beginning to add Linguistic and Logical thinking, mindful projects of journaling or researching more about the artist could be added. For a longer term group project, the time-honored tradition of a class producing a musical, however small scale, artfully combines all five learning styles plus the extremely important Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills of collaboration, organization and usually some degree of diplomacy.
Although it can be very freeing to focus on process instead of product when creating, not all Contemplative Art has to be temporary or disposable. There are almost unlimited sources of inspiration for projects that produce work which can be used in future Mindfulness Practices. Stringing mala beads is meditative in the process but also results in a bracelet that the maker can use to count breaths or mantras (and is an excellent exercise in small motor skills). Calligraphy, sculpting, drawing, painting, even candle-making can yield items which can be used as visual focus objects in future meditation. Baking bread can be a peaceful process of awareness (as well as a means to think about measurement and numbers for the Logical Thinking) and afterwards a vehicle for a practice of mindful eating.
Just as Contemplative Art can be practiced in different learning modalities, so can Mindfulness. It‘s a common misconception that meditation is always a static practice usually performed in a sitting posture. Although many people do meditate while sitting, either on the floor or in a chair, there are Mindfulness practices for every one of the five learning styles. There are traditions of walking, standing (which is particularly good for grounding) and even laying down meditations. Mindfulness of a focus object/picture/statue/ flame is an exercise in Visual Learning as well as concentration. Being present with a bell or other neutral sound like waves, drumming, chanting is an Aural Learning experience. Mantras & anchor words are particularly good for Linguistic Learning in meditation but can also be helpful for those with a preference for Auditory Learning. Journaling and writing poetry are good creative contemplative practices for Linguistic thinking. Zen koans, esoteric symbolism and “magical” numbers would be things to ponder to mindfully exercise the Logical parts of the brain. Walking meditations, labyrinths, & yoga are particularly suited to Kinesthetic Learning as are tai chi, dance and eurhythmy.
In Gardner’s model, he lists seven types of intelligences, the five already mentioned plus Interpersonal and Intrapersonal. It is probably more appropriate to additionally assess the personal preference of Solitary vs. Social Learning for each student than to label these two as additional Learning Styles. Since Mindfulness is Awareness, no matter which is a persons more natural temperament - Solitary or Social- it is important to be able to experience both types of being present, being with yourself and being with others for basic SEL. This is especially important in a classroom setting and a mindful teacher can skillfully guide the daily dance of balancing each child’s need for independence/solitude with their need for socialization. While the general perception of meditation is that it is a very solitary practice, and any of the above types of practice can be done alone, many also lend themselves to group settings as well. Sitting, walking, chanting, and yoga are all particularly good Social Mindfulness Practices. Outside of a classroom setting, volunteer work, retreats and seasonal celebrations or festivals all are occasions for people to be mindful but not solitary.
Likewise, most Contemplative Art practices can be done in a Solitary or Social setting. Music, dance, mural painting, poetry slams, group writing projects and theater are all mindful creative activities that can be very Social and collaborative. These should be balanced with more inward turning Contemplative Art practices such as watercolor painting, journaling, calligraphy, dance or musical solos and independent writing projects.
Of course, none of these practices are actually mindful if there isn’t awareness on the part of the participants and the especially the facilitator. This intangible quality of being fully present and creatively weaving multi-sensory experiences together to present lessons in differing learning styles for all students makes teaching itself an ultimate exercise in Contemplative Art and Mindfulness.