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“Mindfulness, for me, enables me to experience an art museum as if I’m listening to music. To just listen, attend to how all these objects make me feel.”
How can mindfulness change our experience of art? Experienced meditation teacher and guide Tracy Cochran sees museums as perfect places to practice the lessons of mindfulness. From focusing on how an artwork impacts the feelings in her body to using the meditation techniques of “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind” to understand a work of art in a new way, Cochran sees many opportunities for applying mindfulness in the museum.
In this episode, hosted by Getty Museum educator Lilit Sadoyan, Cochran shares her understanding of mindfulness and its role in art spaces as well as some techniques for practicing mindfulness in museums. Cochran teaches mindfulness meditation and mindful writing in the greater New York area at institutions such as the Rubin Museum of Art, New York Insight Meditation Center, and numerous schools, libraries, and corporations. She is also the editorial director of Parabola magazine.
Lilit Sadoyan: Hello, I am Lilit Sadoyan, a museum educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on mindfulness in the museum.
Tracy Cochran: Mindfulness, for me, enables me to experience an art museum as if I’m listening to music. To just listen, attend to how all these objects make me feel
Sadoyan: In this episode I speak with meditation teacher, guide, and author Tracy Cochran.
How can we be fully alive with art? How might we feel a work of art in our bodies? Can you remember a time when you let yourself be touched by an artwork? How did it feel?
And what does mindfulness have to do with all these questions?
Over the last 15 years, as an art historian and museum educator, I’ve been exploring the idea of how mindfulness practice can shape our experiences in museum spaces. I’ve focused on how we can bring present-moment awareness of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions in museums to deepen our experience of art.
Tracy Cochran, a meditation teacher, guide, and writer based in New York, has been exploring this same thing for four decades. She leads meditations at the Rubin Museum of Art and New York Insight Meditation Center, as well as at schools and corporations.
I recently spoke with Tracy about how mindfulness—and playfulness—can shape our experience of museums, our approach to art, and our understanding of ourselves.
Tracy, thank you so much for joining us today on our Getty Art and Ideas podcast.
Tracy Cochran: Well, thank you for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here.
Sadoyan: I would love to begin by getting to know you a little bit more. If you would like to talk about your background, how you got into meditation work, and maybe even defining mindfulness for our listeners.
Cochran: Jumping right into what mindfulness is, it’s, to me, and what attracted me to it in the first place is, it’s an invitation and a practice that invites me, that invites all of us, to be more present to our experience. To be more open to everything that’s arising inside us—not just thoughts and conceptual understanding, but sensations and feelings and that thing called presence.
I wanted to be as fully alive as I could be in every circumstance, including in the museum where we met.
Sadoyan: That’s beautiful. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you see the intersections of mindfulness and art experience playing out in a museum space.
Cochran: The practice of mindfulness, for me, enables me to be present with a work of art, whether it’s modern or something even made yesterday, or something that was designated as a sacred object, in a way that opens me to it. Again, not just conceptually, but with my feelings, with my sensations, with the whole of my experience.
And so I’ve come to see that the real gift of mindfulness is that it’s really not something that’s limited to sitting on a meditation cushion in a meditation hall. It’s a practice of turning the attention towards myself, towards my experience, attending to what’s coming up for me as I am standing in front of a canvas or a sculpture, and including that in my experience of being in a museum; that I’m having a relationship with these great works.
Sadoyan: That’s right. You know, too often, we come to the museum expecting to learn something or walk away with some form of knowledge that may have been provided to us. And we’re not just brains floating through the museum, but that we come into this experience in our bodies. And that sort of lived experience that we bring to the moment, to the work of art, to the architectural space or the garden or whatever else may be on offer in the museum; recognizing that there’s so much more to that relationship, as you just referred to; tending to that relationship, building that relationship with the work of art through our sensations, through our feelings, through our emotions, through our awareness; and that we can, in fact, feel our way through and into and around works of art, in ways that don’t necessarily privilege the sense of sight.
Cochran: Yeah, that’s true. And it’s really beautiful, the way you put it, of tending to relationship or cultivating it.
I took my little girl to the Tate Modern. And we sat in the Rothko room. I don’t know if that’s what it’s formally called, but his great red-and-black canvases. And because it was an audio tour for children, it was delightfully simple. They turned the lights off. We sat there in the dark. And then slowly, the lights came up and these big, mysterious canvases appeared. And the invitation was just, how does this make you feel, to see these fuzzy paintings, these simple colors?
And it feels like watching sunrise after a dark night. It feels mysterious. And it’s so touching to realize, years later, having had this direct experience, that Rothko wished to convey something very primary. Feelings of ecstasy or doom or terror. And he felt that if someone was stirred in the same way, that then they were making a connection with him. Like you say, a direct relationship.
And I realized that mindfulness, for me, enables me to experience an art museum as if I’m listening to music. To just listen, attend to how all these objects make me feel, allowing it to be different on different days and different seasons, different periods of my life.
Sadoyan: Having been with the Getty Museum for nearly fifteen years now, I often think about what that experience is like for a first-time visitor to the museum. And for a very long time, I thought that you can only look at a work of art for the first time once. More recently, I came to the realization that we’re always looking at the work of art for the first time, bringing this beginner’s mind attitude to the encounter, to the interaction. And tuning into that awareness that you are different each time that you arrive to a piece and utilizing mindfulness as a kind of medium through which you bring that experience to the work of art, but also allowing the work of art to come to you and just receiving it as you are in that moment.
Cochran: Yes. And to give yourself permission to change with these objects over time.
Sadoyan: Yes. And each time, allowing yourself to see again or to be with the work of art again for the first time.
Cochran: Yeah. And the real gift is often when people go to the museum, they either think they don’t know enough or they know so much that they can’t see it with fresh eyes. And in a moment like that, just to give yourself—this is where the mindfulness piece can really kick in—you can give yourself permission to come back to yourself and just feel what’s present.
And if it seems like a certain fatigue or being in a mental rut, well then, bring the attention to the body, to the breath, and give yourself this compassionate permission to just notice how you feel. Even if you’ve looked at this painting a thousand times, how does it feel today? And let nothing be final. No feeling, no conclusion, nothing fixed.
The word sacred means, in its root, to set apart. To use the museum as a space where we can take refuge. They use that expression in Buddhism, but it can be liberated from Buddhism to mean, simply and in a very real way, a place where you can go and rest in awareness and let these great objects come to you, speak to you, without hurry or pressure about getting it right. And just notice what touches us. And it could be the light outdoors or a Van Gogh. And just let ourselves be with our own experience. That, I think, is seeing it again.
Sadoyan: Well, taking root in that experience, as well. You know, I’m thinking back to what you were saying about having a relationship with a piece, and maybe what mindfulness, in fact, offers us in that experience. Tracy, do you think we can own objects in this way?
Cochran: Well, I think we can have relationships, as you said. I think that we can have an appreciation. That we can touch life in an object. I know with Agnes Martin and Rothko, they both were very taken with music and wished their paintings to be an expression that approached music, that conveyed how it feels to be alive, to be human.
And so I love that comparison, because I can’t own a piece of music, in the sense of, like, freezing it and saying I know it. But I certainly know what it’s like to let myself be touched. Just let it flow, understanding from the start that there’s something about it that I can’t capture.
And in the same way, great art, I can put myself there and imagine. Like a child, I can play, in the sense of drawing on sensation. And whatever knowledge I have from living all this time, what would it be like to live with these objects or to be in the court of Versailles or to live at the Villa? And what might be my values, my concerns, my sense of myself? So in that sense, too, I can go to the museum to be enlarged, in a certain way. And not just with my thinking, by getting more facts, as wonderful as that is, but by putting myself there.
Sadoyan: I’m envisioning myself doing that right now, as you described it.
Cochran: Yeah. You mentioned statues. They convey movement and postures and attitudes. And in a certain way, mindfulness practice is about shifting our attitude, changing our posture. When you’re in front of a beautiful statue that moves, where there is dancing, or just movement or a proud posture, we really can call on mindful presence to engage with the statue, in a way that can tell us something very real about what it captured, or intended to capture. When you think of David in a certain posture, and you know, Mary cradling the broken body of Jesus, we can draw on our bodies, as well as our minds.
Sadoyan: I’m thinking of a sculpture in the Getty collection by Giambologna, a sixteenth-century sculpture, of a female figure. And he’s carved this work, like many of his works, in the form of a figura serpentinata, so the serpentine figure. It’s twisting, it’s sinuous. The composition is very complex. And in fact, what that does is prompt the viewer to move around the work of art, just as you were saying, not from a static position, you know, taking this piece in, but really, the movement around the piece, so that it almost unfolds over time.
And inviting the viewer to become a part of the work of art, to bring that work to life, is yet another experience of that relationship that we were talking about. And maybe an awareness or an attention to the ephemerality of that experience, too. And how, in a physical and metaphorical sense—your perspective changes as you change your perspective.
Cochran: That’s beautiful, beautiful. It also conveys something about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be alive.
And for me, the gift of practice is to see that feeling comes from sensation. And if we’re grounded in sensation, keeping everything very simple—you know, coming back to the body. I’m going to the museum today and I’m going to turn my attention to myself and see what’s coming up. And I feel my feet on the floor and my back’s straight. And then when I’m in front of certain works, yes, sensation appears. Like I can feel that serpentine movement. And I’m walking around; I can feel it in my spine and muscles.
And sometimes then also, a feeling appears about— You know, in the case of Rothko, it’s so clear—awe or mystery; or Agnes Martin, joy. But in front of statues, too. What is it touching? What is it inviting me to remember?
Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness, means to remember. To remember presence. And when you put it in the context of a great art museum, you’re being invited to remember aspects of how it feels to be human that you may never have had a chance to engage with before. But it’s there because you’re human.
And we have to give ourselves permission to play. It’s taken me many, many decades to give myself total permission to have don’t-know mind, as it’s sometimes called in Buddhism, and just play. I’m sure you’ve seen toddlers playing dress up or using their bodies and their imaginations to try on different roles and how it would feel to be a knight in King Arthur’s court, or you know, any number of things.
And not as though that’s the last word, but as though this is part of the gift of my being able to be present with these great artworks, these great treasures from the past and from contemporary times. I can know them in more than one way.
Sadoyan: And play in the form of movement, as well, right? So the movement between you and the piece and the space in between.
Cochran: Yeah. It’s like a dance. I mean, some people listening to this might think, “I’m not gonna go to the Getty and actually dance or, you know, move around like.” But we can engage with this even just standing with a statue. We can allow ourselves to feel this interplay or dance of relationship, of sensation, with this object, in the way you could with a living person.
If you’re with a person and they’re standing up tall and manifesting a certain kind of regal ease, you naturally kind of straighten your posture and mirror what you’re seeing. And the beautiful thing about mindfulness is that we can do all this without people really noticing. So we can be in a museum, perfectly dignified or sophisticated, however you wish to see yourself; and at the same time, have this space, the space of mindfulness, to notice. Like, “Oh, this sculpture is drawing me in. It’s inviting me to turn around. It’s inviting me to open and question,” in the sense of having a kind of interested wonderment or a kind of marvel. “Isn’t this marvelous? Isn’t this beautiful?”
And ultimately, the gift of mindfulness— It’s like a quote from Agnes Martin, “Beauty is in your mind.” That these objects are reminding us that there’re parts of us that know this beauty, that are this beauty—or mystery or sorrow or joy.
Sadoyan: And so much of that is taking place within. But certainly, at the Getty—and I hope elsewhere—the physical execution of it all is absolutely welcome, and even encouraged. So if someone would be so inclined to move and dance in response to a piece, what better way to create that knowledge and embed that memory in our bodies.
Cochran: Oh, that would be a beautiful thing to see. I’d love to see someone pirouetting or mirroring the sculptures. Why not? In any great museum, you see people drawing all the time, sitting and sketching. Why not dancing with them? Or posing with them?
Sadoyan: Admittedly, this is the exact sort of experience that I facilitate at the Getty, inviting our visitors, young and younger, to engage with works of art in this way—embodying the pose of Louis XIV or inviting visitors to perform the moulin, or windmill dance, as it’s represented in Lancret’s Dance Before a Fountain, an eighteenth century French painting.
Or imagining that you could reach out and pick up and hold in your hand, an ancient vase, moving it around, thinking about what that sensation is like. Thinking about how you might hold it or grasp it with your palms and with your fingers or against your body, depending on the scale and your physical relationship to the piece.
Imagining that you can walk into a landscape painting and just pause for a moment and look around, and turn around and look at the space within from a different perspective; feel the sensations of the air or the temperature on your skin.
Cochran: I think that sounds absolutely magical.
Sadoyan: Yes, it definitely is magical. Breaking open the objects in this way, that invite this deep level of connection and engagement. But also, to your point, viewing the art as a mirror, to ourselves, or maybe our souls. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit more, too. You know, viewing art as a mirror.
Cochran: Years ago, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, I went to see a particular Buddha. Actually, there were two, called Lohans. And they made an extraordinary impression on me. I felt like I was being led in meditation by a great master. This ancient Buddha that had been discovered in a cave in China was communicating with me directly.
So I was sitting up straighter and letting myself soften and open. And I would visit that Buddha again and again. And then I began to open enough to discover that it’s not just Buddhas; it’s not just religious art, but all kinds of art that can communicate with us directly.
Like a small Dutch painting, a Vermeer or something, can speak to me directly about home, about what it means to be cozy. And in ways that are beyond words and beyond the conceptual, even though it wasn’t necessarily the intention to do that. But it’s an extension of what you’re saying. When you invite people in—like breaking the fourth wall, so to speak—inviting them into these worlds.
It’s also something that’s very personal to us. I know what it means to be cozy. And it doesn’t stop there. Then I can look at some wild, dancing figure and that’s another kind of cozy: comfortable in your skin. Cozy like Beyoncé in her song COZY.
And the mindfulness is a way of not always reaching outside for knowledge, but for coming home to our own sensation of being present, our own understanding of how it feels to be sad, thinking of Rembrandt. Our own knowledge of how it feels to be cozy in a dark, old place. Our own knowledge of how it feels to be free, beholding some dancing statue or some great Buddha. So it’s a two-way relationship.
Sadoyan: Yes. We are coming to the work of art; but also, the work of art is reflecting back to us something we probably already know, that’s within us.
Cochran: Yeah. As I talk to you, I realize how beautiful it is and can be to treat ourselves as if we’re bringing ourselves to the museum; in a way, as if we’re our own children. We’re bringing this living body, this heart, this mind, to this very special place with indoor space, outdoor space, to see how it’s touched, what it calls up in us. And what it might renew or let us have insight about right here inside.
Sadoyan: Yeah. Awakening, really, what’s alive within us already.
Cochran: Yeah. And giving us permission to see that shining a light, this word like enlightenment, can be a very gentle thing. So that you could see a still life on a table and touch something inside that knows how it feels to be content, to be still, to be happy with something simple in a present moment; to be content, to be at peace.
Sadoyan: We have been talking about mindfulness in the museum. Could you speak more about mindfulness in a general sense?
Cochran: Yes, yes. In a time when you cannot depend upon certainties outside— Not that we really ever could, but we lived with stories of what would happen, what was to come. And today, things are very uncertain. Very, very changeable. And when we go to the museum, a place like that, I was reminded of this quote that I learned at the Gandhi Ashram in India, from people who were actually going out into the slums and streets and practicing there. “Just make heaven where you are.”
It’s a place and a time to shift our focus from everything that’s going on out there to ourselves, our own perceptions, our own gift of attention. We can give attention to these artworks, just like we can give it to our loved ones, and bring the spaciousness, this compassionate, open presence right here and right now.
We can become a place of peace, of opening, of joy. And it’s touching to realize that some people, some great artists, like Agnes Martin and others, this was their intention.
Sadoyan: And maybe the intention of museums, as well.
Cochran: Yes, yes.
Sadoyan: Museums are particularly well-positioned for introducing or integrating mindfulness, as they’re spaces where generally, visitors make a conscious effort to slow down, to engage more fully with art and with themselves. So this idea of making heaven where you are certainly can exist in a museum space. But really, at any moment, in this very moment, for all our listeners.
Cochran: Right, right. And understanding that heaven, the key is this very moment, without judgment, without fear, without running away or striving to make it better or alter it, but to just allow ourselves to be present right here and right now, with an awareness that’s compassionate, that’s open, that’s accepting.
Sadoyan: So one final question. How can other people do this work?
Cochran: Okay. Everybody can do this work. And it’s the work of a moment. Just for a moment, stop. Just for a moment, pause. And bring the attention home to whatever experience you’re having right now, with no comments, no judgments. Whatever is present, if it’s tension or fatigue, irritability, or calm, just notice that with kindness, with openness, inviting yourself to be present right now.
It’s so helpful to keep it really simple. Just turn the attention to the body, the sensation. We begin to settle down, and we also begin to open up to this awareness, which is kind. That’s our intention.
That we’re going to bring an attention towards ourselves as we travel through the museum or through our busy days, that’s kind, that’s open, that’s curious and compassionate. We can all do this at least one moment in the day. Then two, then three. Like that.
Sadoyan: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom with us. I’m so grateful for all that you were able to open up for us to consider and reconsider.
Cochran: Well, thank you so much for the work that you do. And thank you to the Getty Museum. It makes me look at these museums with new eyes, as places to go practice, places to go be, just be, and see what comes.
Sadoyan: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening.
Lilit Sadoyan: Hello, I am Lilit Sadoyan, a museum educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on mindfulness in the museum.
Tracy Cochran: Mindfulness, for me, enables me to experience an art museum as if I’m listening to music...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824