How Art Can Help You Sharpen Your Mind

The following is an excerpt from Looking at Mindfulness, in which author Christophe Andre explores how viewing art or reading poetry can help achieve a sense of calm.

Calm, attentive eyes in an attractive, quietly intelligent face, expressing neither benevolence nor hostility, just a desire to understand correctly and in detail. This is Thomas More, amazingly alive in this vibrant portrait painted five hundred years ago. An eternity. This painting by Hans Holbein, who was his friend, emphasizes More’s sharpness of mind and his ability at once to engage and step back. He was one of the world’s movers and shakers, an important, powerful person — look at his rich attire and the gold chain attesting to his services to his king. He holds a small piece of paper, perhaps as a sign of his intense intellectual activity. He was also a brave humanist of great integrity, a reformer and visionary, the author of the famous book Utopia and a friend of the great philosopher Erasmus. He was an affectionate, attentive father, an unusual thing in his day. In a letter to his daughter Margaret he wrote, “For I assure you that, rather than allow my children to be idle and slothful, I would make a sacrifice of wealth, and bid adieu to other cares and business to attend to my children and my family, amongst whom none is more dear to me than yourself, my beloved daughter.” Until her dying day Margaret preserved her father’s decapitated head.

Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543)

Because, having been a great statesman, More was sentenced to death for his opposition to King Henry VIII of England, a tyrannical ogre who ate only meat and changed his wife as readily as he changed his shirt. Look carefully at his face—see how his left eye is soft with compassion, his right eye sharp with attention. May we all be like Thomas More, always capable of both.

If you are a poet, you will see clearly
that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.
Without a cloud, there will be no rain;
without rain, the trees cannot grow:
and without trees, we cannot make paper.
The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.
If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot
be here either.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditative intelligence
Pascal used to say that there were “two excesses: excluding reason and accepting reason alone.” Reason and meditation go well together. The latter allows the former to range more widely. Mindful meditation does not soften the mind, it is not passive contemplation. On the contrary, it feeds our intelligence.

Exerting our intelligence means making connections, linking ideas and…

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