Right now I’m reading Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer’s book, On Becoming an Artist. In it, she lovingly seduces me into really allowing myself to be drawn into the possibility of my own personal renaissance. Her basic premise is that to live the life of an artist, we must do our best to continually live mindfully…as opposed to mindlessly on auto-pilot. Just as you can’t emergency-land a jetliner safely in the Hudson River on auto-pilot, neither can we facilitate or create an artist’s life and brain for ourselves or our children on auto-pilot.

Tyranny, Myth and Mindlessness

painted-brainMany of Langer’s chapters speak deeply to me. Just by reading them, I can feel the neurons blooming and buzzing upon encountering chapters with titles like: “The Tyranny of Evaluation,” “The Myth of Talent,” and “The Mindlessness of Social Comparison.” I’m guilty of each and all of those bits of mindlessness many times throughout any day, especially in my role as a parent, as my daughter currently tries to navigate a significant life transition. What’s captivating about those chapter titles though is something similar to what Gregory Berns described in his book, Iconoclast – they inspire and encourage a certain kind of unfettered creative freedom. They grant me permission to do and think and be as close to who I authentically am in any moment as I can possibly be. Even if friends, family and colleagues become upset by whom I authentically am, sometimes that’s the price to be paid. Ruby E. is an example of such an authentic artist willing to pay that price. She lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where she was encouraged to take up painting. When she did, she clearly took to it. And when she died in 1998, she had sold more than $500,000 worth of paintings.

Waking Up

In the sense that mindfulness suggests greater awareness and ability to see, hear, think, feel and express things from a uniquely personal perspective, I think most of us would want our children to grow up and become artists. (The self-sufficient kind, like Ruby E. of course). There’s a wonderful Rumi poem that my friend Susan O’Connell uses as her email signature that speaks to this greater awareness:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the
doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

I’m convinced that being able to hear the secrets in the breeze at dawn and not go back to sleep takes a certain increasing level of neural integration and development. We have to get our head together – literally. We need to have sufficient capacity to be comfortable with silence and stillness, to be alone with ourselves and feel easy in that aloneness. We also need to feel easy, but engaged and connected with others’ discomfort, to be able to feel fully alive, for example, in The Unforgiving Minute. Can this engagement and connection be cultivated in us and in our children?  I believe it can, and I think the current widespread application of secular mindfulness-based practices that can be found in programs like Inner Kids or the A.R.T. Programs  (Awareness and Relaxation Training) springing up at leading universities and in various hospitals around the country indicate this.

Engagement and Connection

In her new book, Parenting is a Contact Sport, psychotherapist Joanne Stern underscores the artist brain requirement for parents to model and teach children about mindfulness, engagement and connection. The Afterword is written by her own two daughters, Carol and Andrea, who are living their own form of artistry in the world. Here’s what they have to say:

brain-crocheted-0314091(Our mom) didn’t have to compromise being our parent…just to be our friend. She did have to be honest with us. She had to spend tons of time with us, do activities with us, and have real conversations with us. She had to earn our trust by treating us with fairness and respect….She sometimes had to put her pride aside and admit when she was wrong, or have the humility to learn from us, instead of thinking that we always had to learn from her….We believe that the relationship we have with our mother is the single greatest gift we have ever been given.

Any of us who have children willing to publicly proclaim similar sentiments can rest in the easy comfort that they have done everything possible to help paint in their children a true artist brain.