Now You Can Open Your Eyes: Mindfulness in the Museum, Summer 2014


I had no idea where I was going or when my partner would say I could open my eyes.  And then she did say it – “OK, open your eyes” – and – AH! — a rush of pure experience that quickly resolved into a vaguely football-shaped object, which then further resolved into a rust-colored, hairy hide with large stitching that just stood there, implacable, in front of me.   I sought the AH! again but found that I couldn’t replicate that full, immediate gestalt.  So I looked more carefully: bald spots in the hide, wrinkles in the stitches, the mystery of its flattened football-ish perimeter.   Each detail that I perceived gave a mini AH, more of an ah, as the object became more of an object, and as restlessness wormed its way between me and the object.  “Your turn now,” I said to my partner, and I placed my hands on her shoulders and began guiding her, looking for the piece in the Hood Museum of Art that I wanted her to open her eyes to, to see, indeed to be — if only for a flash.

“First thought, best thought” was the experiment of the evening.  Ms. Donna Williams began by giving the eleven of us beautiful, simple mediation instructions, and then we sat silently together in the “test tube environment” of the Hood Museum for ten minutes.   It was important, Ms. Williams said, to get a “baseline reading” of our minds, so we could have a sense of contrast if and when we perceived something more directly and openly.  So we saw our minds, or we spaced out and saw that we spaced out, for ten minutes, and then Ms. Williams instructed us in the experiment.  “You will close your eyes, and your partner will lead you to a piece in this museum. Your partner will tell you when to open your eyes.   So then you open your eyes and just notice.  You’ll notice a first thought, and then you might notice a next thought.  And that next thought is OK too.  Just keep noticing.”

When we gathered again after the experiment, people were eager to talk about their own and others’ perceptions and thoughts.  Several agreed with a person who said that the piece they opened their eyes to “seemed to just come into me!”  This amazing sense of being momentarily merged with the piece was even described by one person as “threatening” – perhaps she had been placed in front of the stunning display of African spears and other weapons currently on display at the Museum.

As the hour came to an end, I realized that I was leaving both more energized and more curious than I had felt when the hour began.  My own experience and the comments of others had perked me up.  I wanted to know whether abstract art is more conducive to nonconceptual experience than representational art; whether it is, as one person said, “aggressive” to look more actively and closely at things; whether “first thought, best thought” requires the “voila” factor of suddenly opening one’s eyes, or whether one can do this on one’s own, in a more ordinary way.  I also wondered – what the heck was that hairy football-ish thing that had elicited such a genuine AH from me?

I did go back and read the description of the piece – it was a Zulu shield.  And it was definitely a piece that I wouldn’t have looked at twice had I been walking around the Museum by myself, without the mindfulness instructions I had received that evening.  Now I feel a very special relationship with that Zulu shield – like it and I are profoundly connected in some way that I can’t quite remember or foretell.

The Mindfulness in the Museum events are occurring two more times this summer.  They’re led by Ms. Donna Williams and Ms. Raven Fennell, and my understanding is that there are different experiments each time – so you might have missed the “first thought, best thought” experiment, but you will have another experiment that I suspect will be just as interesting, if not more so.  The next two dates are August 20 and August 27, both at 5:30.  And thanks to the Hood Museum for coming up with this wonderful  idea and inviting the Shambhala Center to conduct the mindfulness part of it!