I remember the first time I met eyes with the "Dutchman." His stare was steady but soft, tinged with strength and fragility. It was clear he had tasted financial success and fame, but something wasn't all right with him. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes were high-water marks of his pride washed away. His lips were slightly pursed, his humility plain to see. I was curious to meet this Dutchman, so I approached him. His name, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, or simply just "Rembrandt." He was painted on a small canvas, hanging on a wall in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The plaque next to the painting said that this was one of Rembrandt's many self-portraits. It went on to explain that this one was painted after Rembrandt had experienced a great deal of financial hardship and personal tragedy. Though he was a successful and well-known artist, he had lived outside his means; he had been forced to sell everything and declare bankruptcy.
What struck me about the painting was its absolute honesty. His inner experience was evident to the viewer, without being obvious. It was apparent he had taken a thorough look at himself, both literally and figuratively. The painting triggered in me an honest look at my own vulnerability, and fragility... Maybe all these things I saw in him were my projections. I saw myself, momentarily, as Rembrandt. It was one of those beautiful moments, when we realize the beauty that dwells within us. The next thing I considered, "Do I present myself to the world this authentically?"
Through my mindfulness practice, I've had a glimpse at living authentically, but have yet to make that my permanent expression. My mind and indeed many have this affliction, want to protect themselves from every insult and injury, as if it were a possible or even desirable thing to do. This "self-protection" is often deceiving, as it makes us feel slightly more comfortable in the immediate moment while undermining and binding us to fear and doubt. We might avoid facing our problems or withhold an unpopular opinion for worry of being judged. But what does this do to our lives? What are we without honestly facing our hardships or sharing our perspectives? What are we without our vulnerability? In my opinion, we're just shells of human life without these things.
I believe Rembrandt, through this self-portrait in particular, was practicing a kind of meditation of examining his feelings and just allowing them to be, without attempting to change them. From personal experience and talking to other artists, when deeply involved in our creative craft our experience is like meditation, and similar things are going on in the brain. In my opinion, it actually is meditation.
Mentors of mine, Joel and Michelle Levey, wrote in their book, Luminous Mind, "The heart of mindfulness is compassionate awareness able to hold and bear any experience without turning away and without compulsively trying to change the experience." They told me, "Meditation takes courage. It can be just one insult after another." Observing ourselves exactly as we are can be at the same time humbling and inspiring, or neither. Sometimes it just is.
When we take a little time to sit and observe what's going on without trying to change it, we often have surprising realizations. In the beginning of my practice I thought meditation was only about feeling relaxed or joyous at the end, but with experience I've found those aren't always the outcomes. Nor do I wish them to be. Sometimes I need to understand what I'm feeling and feel it deeply, even if it is uncomfortable, to have the kind of motivation to really pull myself out it. Having a mindfulness practice helps from being carried away by the persistent thoughts and stories that tag along when times get tough.
Below is a short exercise for mindfully experiencing discomfort. Try it out when you're having difficulty with restlessness, worry, anger, fear, pain or anything that causes you discomfort. This is a loose "recipe." Feel free to adapt it to what works for you. Set a timer for five or 10 minutes if you're just beginning. Try to stick with it until the timer is up.
- Find a quiet place and sit with a "posture of dignity" as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it.
- Bring your attention to your breathing. There's no need to change it, just observe that you are breathing in and breathing out.
- When the impulse to change what you are doing or feeling arises, gently smile to yourself and mentally note "desire for change."
- Bring your attention to where your heart sits and allow any discomfort to just be, without trying to change it.
- Notice what you're feeling. Perhaps it's: anger, fear, worry, anxiety, sadness, disappointment, loneliness or something else. Just notice, give it a label and keep watching it.
- Notice how the intensity changes. Notice how even the feeling may change. Notice the thoughts and stories that come along, but allow them to leave your mind as quickly as they appeared. What else do you notice?
- At the end of your session, dedicate your practice to something or someone. It can be to yourself, a loved one or all beings great and small... whatever you like.
- See if you can hold this view of feelings as you move throughout your day. Every now and again, when you notice the feeling overcoming you, stop and notice your breathing. Reconnect with the sentiment from your meditation, even if only for the moment.
Note: Joel and Michelle Levey's books are amazing resources for anyone with a mindfulness practice. They are personal friends and mentors, but I do not receive any financial incentives from the sales of their books.
For more by Michael Stanclift, N.D., click here.
For more on meditation, click here.