About half an hour ago, I was sitting by my laptop in an after lunch slump staring at a blank Microsoft word document, wondering how to start this. There was a voice at the back of my head saying – you really should practice what you preach and do a meditation right now, surely if there is any time to meditate it is before writing this! I couldn’t really be bothered, which is a recurring theme with my relationship with meditation.
There is an old Zen saying, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour”. Or as my meditation teacher Michael Miller says “Always there is something other to do than meditate. Rarely is there something better to do.”
So, of course, I meditated and I am now writing this with a completely different frame of mind. I am focused. I am not even sure where my phone is in the studio. Before the meditation I was aimlessly scrolling, wondering how to begin this and thinking about what snack to have.
Venetia Berry in her studio by Georgia Rothman Productions.
I think, what I am trying to say is that there is no right or wrong relationship with meditation and I am in no way an authority on it. But meditation and mindfulness have really changed my life for the better, so I wanted to convey my personal relationship with them. My gateway into this world came about four years ago when I joined a new Yoga studio just along the road from my studio in Brixton. I had been struggling with anxiety, but I hadn’t totally realised this was what the sick and nervous feeling I constantly had in my stomach was; I thought this was just me. Four years ago sounds recent, but the conversation on mental health was only really just beginning to open up, from where I was watching anyway. When I left my first yoga class I felt like an elephant’s foot had lifted from my stomach and experienced my first floaty after-yoga feeling. I have been hooked ever since and whenever I fall off the yoga wagon, as it were; I can feel it almost instantly. This doesn’t mean I won’t keep falling off regularly throughout my life. It is almost as if I will never learn! But with all these things, it really doesn’t help to put pressure on yourself, particularly when the whole purpose of it is to help your mental health. So I aim to practice some kind of yoga or other exercises every day, but of course, I don’t manage it all the time.
I took a meditation course at the London Meditation Centre nearly two years ago. I can’t recommend this course more. It is a three-day course and the teachers are fountains of knowledge and wisdom. After the course there are group meditations, they did a weekly online meditation throughout lockdown which was one of the highlights of my week and they have created a real community. I aim to meditate every morning, although this doesn’t always happen. And on a really good day, I get one in during the afternoon too. You may think you do not have the time for this, but then look at your phone ‘screen-time’ and if you are anything like me the screen-time will prove that you do have the time, you just aren’t using it wisely. I would like to acknowledge my privilege when it comes to this. I know I am extremely privileged to have the time and often money when it comes to classes etc. I work for myself and by myself. I have the space in my studio. I don’t have children or any other care obligations. I am not working many jobs to get by and I do not have an extremely demanding job. I realise that the majority of people do not share these privileges with me.
When asked to write this, I wasn’t sure where to begin as I am not a teacher and I have no authority on the subject matter. I thought the best way to start would be suggestions from me, about what has helped my work in the past.
First of all, put your phone on to airplane mode, or just turn it off.
If you are able to give yourself a couple of hours phone free, then that is a joy in itself.
Do something that you feel gives you some kind of meditative feeling within. Personally, these help me out.
- A yoga class. Online or a real in person class. (If you are new to yoga, please go to a class, as it is really important you don’t injure yourself by getting the poses wrong.)*
- A self-led meditation if you have been trained. For those who haven’t a guided meditation would be best. There are lots of apps like Headspace and Calm that can get you started. (But best to do a course if you are able to.)*
- A guided breathwork class. I recommend Richie Bostock @thebreathguy on the @Fiit app. James Dowler @breathewithJames or Wim Hof @iceman_hof are also great. (Not if you are pregnant and please check with a doctor if you have any other health conditions that may affect this).*
- Cold water therapy. Jump in a freezing cold shower/bath or sea if you are lucky enough for at least 30 seconds, fully submerged. My brother does this daily for a timed 5 minutes. (This was great for me during the summer, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do this for a few weeks now!) Again, not if you are pregnant, and please check with a doctor if you have any other health conditions that may affect this.*
- If you can’t do any of these, exercise is another option, but for me, it doesn’t really access the same part of your creativity as the other options.*
* I would like to add that although these all feel meditative, only meditation is meditation. For example, saying running is your form of meditation is like saying boxing is your form of playing cards. They aren’t the same thing. I hope this entices you to learn how to meditate!
Venetia Berry's painting set up.
As I said, there is no ‘correct’ way to practice mindfulness. I do not want to promise anything and everyone is different, but I often feel a deeper sense of clarity and focus after doing one of these.
As creativity is completely instinctive, I don’t want you to plan what you will work on before. To really access your creative side, let your instincts guide you. Whether it be painting, writing, planning try to follow your gut with what to do next. For example, when I am starting a painting I do not choose all of my colours before. I just start with the first colour and go from there. These ideas are in no means groundbreaking, but in the act of taking away the planning, you will already be more connected with your instinct. I always remember Jenny Saville referring to painting as something ‘primal’, so use this time to be led by this inner presence. Creativity isn’t about planning.
I would also advise to lose the idea of showing your creations to anyone. This lowers the pressure on you to create something for instagram/for your website/to sell. Of course you can show people afterwards, but during the creative process, drop this idea. If it isn’t going as you hoped, instead of working and reworking, just put it to one side and start fresh. As much as you may want to destroy these works, keep them and come back to them later. Try to work out what it is about them that hasn’t worked for you. You may be able to return to them later with a new perspective. It is important to approach creativity with a non-judgemental mind. After all, the only way to grow creatively is to make the mistakes and learn from them.
Whenever I am feeling disconnected from the present moment, I often remember the advice given by Beth Kempton in her book ‘Wabi Sabi’. She recommends taking a breath and beginning with the senses. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you hear? What is the weather like? What season is it? Each of these acts brings you back into the present as you are forced to look around you and appreciate the moment for what it is. After all, most anxiety and worry is based around a future or past moment that you have no control over, and probably won’t happen anyway.
Out of One, Two by Jenny Saville, 2016
During my course, my teacher related meditation to taking a shower. Most days your shower goes unnoticed, just part of your daily routine. Sometimes you might be staying in a fancy hotel with all the soaps you could dream of and have an amazing shower. Not showering for one day is fine, two days even, but if you went weeks or months you may be unpleasant to be around. The moral being, it doesn’t matter what the shower was like during it, it is more important what the shower made you like for the rest of the day. So, give it a go! The best thing is that there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. For me, it just comes down to becoming less anxious, less distracted, and more present and creative. The importance of one small act of mindfulness each day really can transform your being and your creativity.
For anyone wanting to learn more about the London Meditation Centre, Venetia La Manna interviewed my teacher Michael Miller on her podcast, Talking Tastebuds.