Drawing to Clear the Mind

Last week I was invited to give a talk at an adult education center in Harvard Square about drawing and the mind. I’d planned to give a mini-drawing class as words only touch what the experience conveys. But the director mentioned that most of the attendees would be elderly. The act of drawing takes us out of our scattered, worrying minds into a place of peace, even happiness. In this space, we have a chance to gain perspective on our thoughts and to hone critical thinking skills. I wondered if the old folks would give a damn. I arrived early and set out paper, pencils and crayons on the tables. The first to arrive looked to be about 90, was slightly stooped but dressed immaculately in a suit. He carried The Boston Globe under one arm and looked sad, broken even. A widower, I thought. Or maybe he’d been affected like so many by the reckless games played on Wall Street. Yeah, that could be.  When he saw the tables set up for art-making he frowned and halted. “We’re going to be doing some drawing,” I said. His face fell. “I’m not very good at that.” “Don’t worry.  We’ll start by just scribbling like kids.” My effort to reassure failed. He sat at the back, opened his paper, stared at it but made no headway. It was as if he couldn’t concentrate or some dread had taken him over. Or maybe it was the news in the paper—more Wall Street horrors. When everyone was settled I asked them to pick up a crayon. When we draw we leave our linear-thinking, verbal, left brains and enter the spatial, imaginative, meditative, right brain. It happens naturally, I said. I scanned the crowd and saw that my friend had dozed off and so had the man beside him! Still, I asked the rest to just start scribbling. “Make marks of all kinds—lines, squiggles. Bash away and have fun!” I put on some music—Roy Orbison singing “Crying.” Several of the old folks started singing along! I saw then that my friend was drawing and the man next to him too. The next song came on and not one person looked up. They were scribbling, and laughing. I wandered between tables telling them the things I loved—the funny lines, the colors, the boldness! I had several exercises planned but could hardly get them to stop scribbling. How many of us are walking around with something vital bottled up inside? But we did move on. We drew upside down next, a helpful technique, and the results were funny and great. Some were so pleased they held up their drawings to show each other—like kids. I finished by telling them we all have a brave, strong, wise place within where we see clearly. Any time we pick up a pencil, we can let go of our worrying minds. Drawing’s just a simple little thing but it teaches us presence, detachment and courage. And it teaches us to see clearly, if we practice. When I looked over, I caught my friend with a huge, luminous smile on his face. He’d remembered something. He was capable and strong. Life was beautiful and fun, even in the midst of loss and struggle. I’m carrying that smile with me. If an old man can forget his broken heart, we can forget ours. And we’re young enough to bring our clear visions into a broken world that needs us. [For The Huffington Post May 2010]

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