“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (2001).
Understanding Our Mind: 51 Verses on Buddhist Psychology
I find Our Mother (the sculpture in the photo) completely captivating. Everything I see in her kit has significance for me. Her maker, British artist Grayson Perry, says she may be a pilgrim or a refugee or something from Star Wars. I can relate to that.
During Australia’s stupendous summer of fire (2019-2020) I see 80% of the beautiful region I call home incinerated. My partner and I evacuate twice. Before fleeing the second time, I give tearful thanks to my studio, precious garden and the magnificent bush just beyond. I opt to leave my work paraphernalia where it is. Facing the real prospect of it all being consumed by fire, I bid this place farewell,
breathe … and let go.
In the days that follow, taking refuge, I bear witness to the unfathomable chaos. I sit in this reality with the agonising emotions that arise.
My whole being knows that for us to usefully meet the complex, uncertain, precarious conditions of our world, to act well, and to reside in them with some equanimity, calls for our minds to be attuned to the interconnected whole not solely separate parts. These conditions ask us to be fluent in creativity, compassion and courage. They require our minds to be agile, adaptive, at ease with the unknown, and prepared to traverse uncharted territory.
Everything I have come to know, and everything I have to hand, is in service to cultivating these qualities of mind.
After more than 20 years of creative arts practice and research, and the privilege of doing pioneering work with visionary individuals and organisations, I have a lot of useful stuff in my nifty kit. Unpacking it you’ll find knowledge, practices, skills and experience emanating from visual and performing arts, design, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, Buddhist thought and meditation. It’s a potent blend enabling me to design and make effective tools for the mind, provide kind guidance, and create and hold spaces in which mind can meet itself and unfurl.
There’s also a couple of nice certificates in my kit - one for swimming a width, another for doctoral research that demonstrates the power of arts-based knowing to change our minds.
PS When we return to Jervis Bay, the house, studio, garden and bush appear unscathed but the birds not seen here before and the kangaroos drinking from the bird baths signify a new breed of disruption.
PPS It turns out that Grayson Perry and I were born in the same year, and were studying art at the same time in London in the early 1980s.
Care-filled reclamation of lost parts
Some years back I suddenly felt compelled to start seeking and gathering dolls’ body parts. They had to be of a certain age. The stranger and more spooky, the better. The more twisted and damaged, the more I was drawn to claim them and house them in my studio. There are a lot of them.
These powerful objects tell salutary tales of parts of ourselves we have lost, by accident or design; aspects of our being we have abandoned through neglect or boredom; attributes we have deliberately excised because they are unfashionable or a source of shame.
And some whose disappearance has been so gradual that few of us have noticed - the ways of the brain’s right hemisphere that enable us to experience ourselves as inextricable parts of the whole; situate ourselves in the connective tissue of (all) life on earth. What trees breathe out, we breathe in. What we breathe out, trees breathe in.
“We act like people with right hemisphere brain damage.”
What emerged from Dr Iain McGilchrist’s 20 years of research is well worth a look - how our divided brain has been profoundly altering human behaviour, culture and society, and the consequences of the brain’s left hemisphere
colonising our experience.
“If you come into her studio what will you find? What is this place? A small factory, laboratory, archaeology site, museum, library, storeroom, shrine, ruin, memorial, installation. Nothing seems out of place here because it has no fixed place; always in flux, ebb and flow. An artist’s studio is never still; everything leaks.”
Peter Emmett (1998). Janet Laurence.
Object: Natalie McDonagh (2003). The Phenomenology of Attachment (detail).
Attention is a moral act
Of all capacities of the human brain-body-mind system how we pay attention - to whom, to what, and in what particular way - is arguably the most potent influence we exert on self, others and the world.
“If you are my friend the way in which I attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt … In all these circumstances … you will have quite a different experience not just of me but of yourself: you would feel changed if I changed my type of attention. And yet nothing objectively has changed.
“So it is, not just with the human world, but with everything with which we come into contact. A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it.”
Iain McGilchrist (2009).
The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
Sculpture: Benjamin Armstrong (2004). Old Friends. Blown-glass, pigment, plaster, wax.
“Perhaps the only way to fully restore the ancient welcome of the earth, so long ignored and trampled, is to personally welcome the earth’s demanding difficulty right now as our own, and as vital news from home about intimacy with the other.”
“... rising to the occasion of the long emergency may not seem so impossible once we stop supposing anything and meet it, together with our selves, straight on.”
“... can there be failure if the undertaking is to let this crisis be the making of us? Maybe the only failure is not turning up to claim life while it is still on offer.”
Susan Murphy (2014).
Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis
“Be humble for you are made of earth.
Be noble for you are made of stars.”
Undivided self meditation tool is designed to widen our understanding of ourselves as inextricable parts of the whole; situating self in a continuum of body, mind, thought, emotion and material world. It can be used to form a new spiritual-artistic practice or expand existing meditation of any tradition.
Find Undivided self in the Artfulmind shop.
Early incarnations of Undivided self emerged many years ago while I was working for an extended period (during my doctoral research) with environmental scientists and educators. It was both a gift and a curse to see through their eyes; to witness their lived experience of willingly and bravely facing the facts of radical climate change, the uncertain future of the natural environment and humanity’s prospect inextricably interwoven within it.
There was a question ever present in my mind. Sometimes I asked it of people when I felt there was space for it to be received: How do you meet and hold the emotions that arise in the face of this monumental knowledge?
I have been asking myself this question ever since. One answer I know to be true is that cultivating more holistic mind attuned to the inter-connected whole, not solely separate parts, supports us in usefully meeting uncertain, precarious and frightening conditions; supports us to reside in them with some equanimity, and stay engaged. Undivided self serves this purpose.
“...clearly humanity is complex, conflicted and full of faults, but at this moment in time, when our very existence hangs in the balance, we need to come together not just in good faith and consolation, but also in a spirit of creativity and invention. Our existence depends upon offering the best of ourselves.”
Nick Cave (2020). The Red Hand Files / Issue #122
Image: Artfulmind® Undivided self kit / Meditation cards (detail).
Open mind, Open heart
Cultivating sound self leadership is vital for any of us concerned with conducting ourselves, our relationships, our life and work with more grace, dignity,
courage and compassion.
Open mind, Open heart is designed for general personal and professional development, as well as to formulate a path of sound self leadership in specific situations. This may be leading a challenging conversation; contemplating career or life changes; investigating your work in the world … any circumstances in which you want to make a considered move, confident of your ground.
Find Open mind, Open heart cards and kit in the Artfulmind shop. See how this tool came about in the video Creating mind: An insight into the design process (01:23)
What the body knows (but may have forgotten)
The concept to portray Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in a quaint domestic setting, knitting, was put to the PM by her male chief press officer, John McTernan, who thought it was a ‘no-brainer’. On hearing the concept Gillard thought it was probably okay. When the PM was actually on the shoot, wearing the outfit provided, physically sat down in the staged setting and took up the knitting needles, she told staffers accompanying her that it felt absurd.
If I had been Gillard’s coach I like to think she could have cultivated a more mindful, unified balance of head-thinking-mind and body-sensing-mind. When McTernan presented the concept both Gillard’s intellect and her embodied, implicit knowledge - reliant on the brain's right hemisphere - would have told her in real time it was absurd.
If I’d been McTernan’s coach I like to think that he could have both been aware of his mind’s biases and, if/when this concept arose in his mind, recognised the dual meaning of his ‘no-brainer’ assessment and not proposed it.
I know from personal experience that having a more comprehensive, multifaceted view of situations can avoid leading myself, and others, into pitfalls ranging from the relatively benign to the potentially disastrous.
I sincerely believe that society, the environment and our climate would all be well served by leaders (and advisors) who embody more mindful, whole brain-body modes of knowing. If you think so too, give me a hoy.
PS In the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, to find an image like this vexed portrait of Gillard you’ll need to make your way to works of the 19th century.
“Practise complete awareness of body, thoughts and feelings.”
C. Riddell and C. Nielson (1998). Buddhism for Bears.
Mindfulness is a state of mind and being achieved through focusing awareness on the present moment, calmly observing, acknowledging and accepting whatever feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations are present.
Mindfulness enables us to be more present in and to ourselves, others and the world. It aids us in seeing and thinking more clearly, reducing stress and anxiety, building emotional resilience and equanimity.
We can train our brain-body-mind system to pay mindful attention through formal meditation techniques and everyday practices. You might like to try the guided exercise in the video Mindful placement of objects (1:40).
Research findings show that in long term meditators the corpus callosum (the broad band of nerve fibres joining the brain’s two hemispheres) is thicker, increasing the connection between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, unifying and balancing the distinctly different worlds that each hemisphere yields to us. The left, an abstract world of concepts and symbols (the map - a diagram of lines, squiggles and numbers). The right, the real world of embodied, felt, lived experience (the actual terrain - its ground underfoot, temperature, birds, plants, smells …).
THINKER • MAKER • ATTENDANT
My six year old self would easily recognise my creative practice today as a more sophisticated version of what absorbed me for hours on end as a child: creating special objects and making spaces for meaningful exchanges with my imaginary friend, Dolney.
The objects and devices I make these days are tools to aid different aspects of the mind - creative thinking, self-inquiry, spiritual practice. The spaces I make and facilitate for (actual) people provide conditions in which far more than intellectual ways of knowing are awakened, and the mind may meet itself and unfurl.
I am present in these emergent spaces of self-inquiry being (an) Attendant - a hybrid form of artist / agent - who activates and holds the space for others as they explore their inner world; bearing witness to what may emerge, what may become known; able to amplify the effects.
My early career as a clothing designer, and later study with theatrical performers, give a special role to garments in these experiential environments. Clothing provides a highly effective means for participants to access a rich repository of wisdom we tend to overlook - what the body knows (but may have forgotten).
This form of facilitated embodied, experiential knowing enables us to both awaken dormant aspects of our repertoire of ways of being and doing, and to learn new ones that may serve us well in meeting the challenges we face.
If you’d like to chat about commissioning an Artfulmind experiential learning space, get in touch. I’d be delighted to hear from you.
PS My left arm is under the table in a plaster cast. I broke it in the school playground. I was Catwoman.
Batman and Robin were chasing me. I was getting away nicely but tripped and fell on my arm.
If you’d like some direct guidance from me I offer online sessions.
In particular, I welcome working with those seeking guidance in navigating responses to the climate crisis. Those who may be seeking to steer a steady course between despair and denial. Those seeking ways to be present, stay engaged and
take useful action.
In the photo that’s me on the left and my bestie, Vivienne. Sessions with me are a bit like a game Vivienne and I would play: What if I were... We had a box with mixed women’s and men’s clothes and accessories. We created an imaginary scene and some directions for what was happening in it. We tried on all sorts of combinations of clothes until we found something that felt right to us in that moment - costumes that enabled us to inhabit ourselves and the world differently. Then, in character, we explored how we might be, what we might say, what could happen as a result.
“Ordinary clothes don’t express the inner truth of the person so much as they create it, working from the outside in.”
Anne Hollander (2000). Feeding the Eye.
“We have to recognise that although we are not ultimately self-created, we are increasingly the authors of our own nature, the products of our own handiwork, and living in a nature of our own making.”
Raymond Tallis (2003). The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being.
Image: Herbert Bayer (1939). Advertising Design. (Adapted)