This year began with lots of promise. I was establishing myself as a consultant, working on moving to a warmer part of the country and trying to make a book out of my dissertation. This year hasn’t turned out as I had planned but I know the entire world is feeling the same way right now. The various pandemics we are navigating have solidified new friendships while breaking relationships I thought were solid, challenged me to take charge of my own healing and pushed me to grow in ways I never thought possible.
I’ve spent the last fifteen years in academic spaces as a student affairs administrator, faculty, and graduate student. Equipped with three degrees in higher education and student development, I thought my career and contribution to the world were straight ahead of me. I should have known that nothing about me is straight, not even this path. While I’ve always embraced my identity as an educator, this year I learned I’m an artist as well.
I’ve always doodled in notebooks and napkins but it was not until my twenties that I learned how to infuse breath into my artwork. Obviously, I’ve been breathing on my own since birth, but it was through the work of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh (known by his students as Thay/(teacher)) that I learned the power of mindful breathing through art. I was complaining to a friend about my struggle with meditation; silent meditation is extremely difficult for my hyperactive mind. She suggested I read and watch videos of Thay’s art-making process. For most of his life, Thay has spent time every day making art as part of his meditative practice, combining mindful breathing with calligraphy.
It has been almost a decade since I watched these videos (see some links below) but still remember the feeling of watching him work and breathe with each brushstroke. In April of this year, when it became clear that the pandemic and stay-at-home orders were not going away soon, I noticed my anxiety and fear taking over my daily life. I was staying on a friend’s couch, living out of my suitcase, and on unemployment. Definitely not the year I had imagined for myself yet I found myself yearning for some grounding. Doodling and breathing deeply became a daily ritual thanks to a friends’ gentle reminder and I found myself happier. Amidst all this chaos, I noticed the beauty of flowers blooming or the joy of a cup of chai while watching the sunrise and practicing gratitude for my health when there was so much unknown about COVID-19. I also noticed the pain and calls for justice as Black people were being killed across this country. During one of the protests in downtown Chicago, I remember hearing the crowds but not being able to join them due to my own emotional state and anxiety. Without thinking I picked up a marker and began drawing. I realized that as hard as it was to write words on a piece of paper, shapes danced onto the page through my hand without any hesitation. I finally realized what Thay was talking about in his videos about the importance of breathing, embracing this moment and expressing one’s feelings.
Making art enhanced my awareness of the world around me. I stayed up one night until 3 am just because I couldn’t stop staring at a perfectly full moon. I started drawing the moon that night and now it’s become a foundation of my art. In writing this piece, I’m realizing drawing the moon makes me feel joy in the way Thay must feel when making circles for his calligraphy. Breathing in, breathing out. Now every time I sit down to draw, I take a few deep breaths, draw the circle and let the shapes dance onto the paper. No plan, no vision, just trust.
Who knew my first published books would be mindfulness-based coloring books? This journey has now produced two coloring books, many art adventures, and even a few virtual parties with nieces, nephews, and niblings (a gender-inclusive term for siblings’ children). Watching them draw and color is like watching Thay, faces full of joy, and making art that is full of spirit. This past week our art-making hang out evolved into a Disney princess dance party and it was the most fun I’ve had in quite a while.
My consulting work is slower than envisioned, I’ve picked up an amazing part-time job and I’m still living a nomadic life but I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time. Reconnecting with art and a community of artists across the world, I’m grateful for the lessons my art is teaching me each day: being ok and even embracing when a piece isn’t “perfect”, approaching life like a five-year-old with reckless abandon, and trusting the Universe has a plan that’s revealing itself in due time.
This piece is a reflection on lessons I’ve learned, rather than my preaching from a soapbox. The lessons I’m embracing this year remind me that living an artful life does not mean it is like a beautifully framed painting in a museum, it means embracing the mistakes, unexpected adventures and accepting the beauty and possibility for healing all around us. It’s taking time to notice the warmth of a beautiful sunrise or the falling leaf flowing in the wind. Living an artful life means gratitude for these (sometimes painful) reminders of our mortality and the preciousness of life. Taking time to ensure we speak and work on addressing oppressions around and within us. Making art every day, whether it’s through cooking, drawing, singing, dancing or whatever brings us joy. We deserve to live in joy, even when fighting for justice or feeling lost, finding our own path in this world and remembering to notice our breath as much as possible.
Check out these additional resources:
- Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
- The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh
- Coloring in Consciousness Books
- Links to Raja’s Artwork
This piece was first published on December 21, 2020.
Raja Gopal Bhattar, Ph.D., (they/them/theirs) hails from a long lineage of Hindu spiritual leaders from the Srivaishnava tradition. They are a higher education leader, advocate, and consultant. Bhattar was a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow.