How to look at a painting with patience

Some time ago, I read a book called How to Look at a Painting.

I imagine I thought I looked artistically intellectual reading it on the tube, though it was actually rather interesting and totally unpretentious.

The book by New Zealand curator and art writer Justin Paton came flooding back to me when I was stood – or rather squeezed – in the Royal Academy of Arts to see the exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse.

Like many of these ‘big ticket’ London shows, you try to pick the right day (a week day) and time (first thing in the morning or after lunch) only to find your viewing thwarted – or often obscured – by a bus load of school kids or clubs of pensioners. Yes, we’re all individual numbers, I know!

On this particular instance, I dug deep (with the breath) and resisted the urge to tut or say ‘thank you’ when someone fails to do so when you let them pass (the British gallery-going equivalent of telling someone to … off), and fully worked the mindfulness.

So, here’s how to cope with the crowds and look at a painting with patience (and enjoy it!) … tips that are applicable to many other busy or stressful situations:

1) Ground your feet – not so you stubbornly refuse to let Ms Pushy of Pinner anywhere near Monet’s water lilies but so you stay calm among the bustle (rooting through the feet is a widely used public speaking tip). It also keeps you steady to enjoy the moment – and maintains your energy to move on, not sagging into one hip giving yourself bottom/backache!

2) And exhale … At length … It’s the out breath that stimulates the restful/calming part of our nervous systems (and also aids digestion), so making the exhale longer than the inhale helps us relax in stressful situations (good for pre job interview jitters). In a gallery it’s nice to inhale and view a painting, exhale and see ‘what’s your reaction/feeling about it?’

3) Take in a new perspective – when the crowds are thronging take a step back. What do you see (size of picture and rabble dependent)? You literally do get a different impression of the impressionists, and then step back in when there’s space and note what you see on closer inspection.The giant crescent canvas of Monet’s latter life water lilies at the end of the exhibition are best viewed from varying angles.

4) Drink in the colours/shapes/outlines – be fully present and aware of what is before you. These are amazing artists and we’re privileged to be able to see them (ok at almost £20 a head we’re the more privileged paying for the privilege). Immerse yourself in the colours of Henri Matisse, and notice the twilight bathing the houses within Henri Le Sidaner’s gardens and how it seems to change before the eyes.

5) Silence is golden but it’s also good to talk – the room hosting the exhibition’s Gardens of Silence – those without human presence – is suitably dark and chatter among viewers tends to naturally quieten there. Everyone’s experience of art is unique and best consumed by yourself first, and then you can share and compare it with a friend afterwards (just not too loudly into a stranger’s ear!).

So, mind the crowds with mindfulness and hopefully you’ll gain the best possible impression of a painting. Book tickets for Painting the Modern Garden

Letting go of judgement

Gabrielle Bernstein bounds onto the stage bursting with Friday night enthusiasm, her energy as palpable as one of her pulse-touching meditations.

‘Hello, London!’, she exclaims in a New York accent to actual shrieks among the huge audience at a packed Friends House. ‘Y…You are all so giddy… I’m going to love you…!!’, she continues.

Oh I’m really not going to love you – You are so … American, I say to myself in my seat way too close to the stage to escape unnoticed, or easily.

And why are you wearing those impossibly high black heels when you have to stand up and talk for two hours?! (Says me who a wore a similar pair to a recent party that gave me footache for days and a sore hip – and yes, I’ll wear them again.)

And what are those super skinny jeans about? Call yourself a yoga teacher, huh? No chance of any deep breathing in those without a serious rupture … but damn you look better than me in mine over here!

Judgement: check! Jealousy: check! Guilt: check, check, check!!

We all do it: the snap judgement of the ‘boisterous looking’ stranger on the tube who ends up helping us, the new colleague who ‘is so unlike me’ but who a few weeks in is your new best friend, and the person we judge by their cover, literally.

We also feel bad for our judgement of others and beat ourselves up over it . This is my ‘favourite’ habit especially since I qualified as a yoga teacher and my attitudes should be whiter than a Kundalini yoga uniform. They are not. We’re all human.

Pondering girl by beach Flickr creative commons by Paul Longinidis

Bernstein, the tag-lined ‘new role model for New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws’ sans cocktails as she is 10 years sober, addresses all of this in her talk and her many books (she’s a New York Times best-selling author). She outlines a 5-step plan:

1) Happiness is a choice you make – Forgive your judgments and laugh at your crazy thoughts. As I recall Samantha saying to Charlotte in Sex and the City ‘if you listen to every crazy thought in your head, you will drive yourself mad’

2) Recognise the other person is you – see everyone in the same light or for the first time. Remember everyone has their own, often quiet, battles

3) Practice forgiveness – ‘would you rather be right or happy?’ In the Q&A, an audience member says ‘but being right makes me happy!’. Bernstein gently suggests she write down how she feels when proven right, and also wrong, and see why she feels this way – is it insecurity?

4) Be compassionate – be willing to see your part in situations. Are you too caught up in your own drama/chaos to see the good in the other person. Bernstein offers up a moving example of how they got over a long fallout with her father by seeing him through other people’s eyes and seeing her own role in ‘judging him’

5) In my defencelessness my safety lies – let people say what they need, but let it resolve. A fervent pro-gun control American, Bernstein has been attacked on social media for her views, even by her own #spiritjunkies, but now when she posts on this issue she tells her followers to write what they like ‘just be kind to each other’.

So what were my takeaway messages:

1) Keep an open mind and heart – I told myself this when I judged Bernstein at the start and soon enough I was laughing along with her and nodding my head in agreement

2) Accept yourself – even your green-eyed ‘monster’ – and acknowledge other people’s success. Bernstein told the story of judging what a fellow Instagram-ing yogi was doing, before checking in with herself and going back to post ‘go for it’. Sound advice for coping with ‘FaceBoast’

3) Let go of unhelpful ‘stories‘ – those bad memories that keep coming back to haunt us. Meditation is a huge help here and continues to serve me in moving forward not back.

So thanks Gabby, my new found friend. Let’s get giddy next time you’re in town … heels included.

Note: this is my interpretation of a talk given by Gabrielle Bernstein on 22 January 2016 at Friends House, London. If I’ve misjudged 🙂 any messages – apologies. For the real deal catch her over on


Feature image by Paul Longinidis Flickr creative commons.