In this contribution, James Ursell considers whether aesthetic experiences contained within our daily lives may echo the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. The intersection between religious experience, theology, and aesthetic practice is a core interest of the TheoArtistry student-led collaborations.
James is a final year PhD student at the University of St Andrews and works on the philosophy of art. He is collaborating with Jenna Schmidt and Michael Thames.
Buddhist Mindfulness and Everyday Aesthetic Experiences
In the philosophy of art there is a burgeoning interest in ‘everyday aesthetics’. This is a ‘movement’ which emphasises the aesthetic dimensions of our everyday lives. Traditionally, analytic philosophers working in aesthetics have focused exclusively on experiences of fine art and the natural world. There has been less interest in the multifarious ways in which our everyday lives and activities are inflected with aesthetic character. The everyday aesthetics movement seeks to redress this dearth of philosophical inquiry.
Champions of everyday aestheticspoint to the aesthetic character of seemingly mundane experiences such as hanging up laundry to dry, walking to work, washing the dishes, drinking a cup of coffee, preparing food, and even scratching an itch. The upshot seems to be that reality affords us far more opportunities for aesthetically rich experiences than is typically realized.
If this is true, then the everyday aesthetic literature can play a vital role in helping people live richer, more rewarding lives: doing the dishes no longer has to be a chore but can be a rewarding aesthetic experience!
As inspiring as this may seem, it all sounds a bit familiar. I am thinking specifically about the Buddhist literature on mindfulness, with which the everyday aesthetics literature could easily be mistaken. Consider Sherri Irvin’s description of the ‘aesthetic’ character of drinking coffee:
‘An experience that one has every day, like drinking a cup of coffee, can become quietly exquisite and even strangely foreign when done with full attention to the feel of the cup in one’s hands, the rim of the cup touching one’s lower lip, and the sensation of the coffee in the mouth and going down the throat. Such common-place moments of everyday experience are richly replete with qualities that we tend to neglect as we physically or psychologically multitask, giving our full attention to nothing’ (Irvin 2008: 31).
By comparison, here is Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s comments on mindful eating:
‘If I offer you a freshly picked tangerine to enjoy, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on your mindfulness. If you are free from worry and anxiety you will enjoy it more […] One day, I offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines […] each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out’ (Thich 1991: 22).
Or, more saliently,
‘Something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea can bring us great joy […] Sometimes we hurry through our daily tasks, looking forward to the time when we can stop and have a cup of tea. But then when we’re finally sitting with the cup in our hands, our mind is still running off into the future and we can’t enjoy what we’re doing; we lose the pleasure of drinking our tea. […] To enjoy our tea, we have to be fully present and know clearly and deeply that we are drinking tea. When you lift your cup, you may like to breathe in the aroma. Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants’ (Thich 2014 84-5).
The common idea is that being aware of the sensations felt in the present moment can make even simple activities very rewarding, meaningful, or satisfying. Now, it would be unfair to charge exponents of everyday aesthetics with appropriating or plagiarising ideas which have their provenance in Buddhist doctrine and practice. Equally, it would be remiss not to discuss the apparent similarities.
I would like to suggest that there are structural similarities between mindful and aesthetic experiences, such that the former may be mistaken for the latter. Quite what ‘aesthetic experiences’ involves is contentious. However, a number of authors take them to require attending to an object for its own sake (i.e. treating it as an end and not just a means to something else). This describes the sort of motivation or objective one has in looking at or listening to something. If your objective in looking at a painting, say, is just to assess whether it will cover a stain on the wall then you won’t have an aesthetic experience (or so it is argued). Instead you need to attend to it for its own sake, out of curiosity in its character, and not just with a view to using it for some further end. It should be added that one can both attend to something for its own sake andfor the sake of some further end: a diligent student might attend to a poem for its own sake and for the sake of completing her assignment, for example.
Mindfulness arguably shares this prerequisite. Being mindful seems to require that one’s objective in attending to something is not just instrumental. For example, if my sole objective in trying to be mindful of the breath is to achieve a state of relaxation, then the benefits I seek will elude me. What is required is that I additionally, or exclusively, attend to the breath for its own sake. This seems to be the idea expressed less prosaically in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on mindful eating:
‘A few years ago I asked some children “what’s the purpose of eating breakfast?” One boy replied, “to get energy for the day”. Another said, “the purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast”. I think the second child is more correct’ (Thich 2009: 347).
Making a comparable point, he writes,
‘The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself. When we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps’ (Thich 1991: 37).
Mindfulness is also extensively investigated in clinical settings. According to one clinical definition, mindfulness involves ‘paying attention to ongoing mental content without thinking about, comparing or in other ways evaluating the ongoing mental phenomena that arise during periods of practice’ (Grossman et. al. 2004: 36). ‘Mental content’ here could include thoughts or sensations or perceptions.
So someone who is successfully practicing mindfulness will attend to her thoughts, sensations, or perceptions for their own sake. In this respect, her experience will resemble an aesthetic experience (at least as it is conceived of above). Furthermore, during some paradigmatic aesthetic experiences, sustained periods of attending to, for example, a painting or landscape for its own sake are rewarded by feelings of pleasure, elation or delight. Something similar can happen during mindfulness. Once one’s busy mental activity has subsided, attending to mental content for its own sake can lead to feelings of serenity and tranquillity. So, both mindful and aesthetic experiences arguably involve attending to something for its own sake and feeling positive affects as a consequence.
There is, however, an important difference between mindful and aesthetic experience. This is subject’s readiness or willingness to evaluate, judge, and compare the objects she experiences. During mindful experience, the subject does not engage with, judge, evaluate, or compare the objects she experiences: she just observes and accepts them. By contrast, aesthetic experiences require – at the very least – a readiness to draw parallels between the experienced object and another, or to judge it or make positive or negative evaluations of it. Aesthetic experiences are in this respect distinct from mindful experiences.
I would like to conclude by tentatively suggesting that terms qualified by ‘aesthetic’ (e.g., ‘aesthetic experience,’ ‘aesthetic value,’ ‘aesthetic judgements’) are already somewhat nebulous and vague. Therefore, the ‘everyday aesthetics’ discourse should proceed in a way which does not further obfuscate its meaning. Put otherwise, we should be careful not to mistakenly classify mindful experience of everyday life as ‘aesthetic’ experiences. This short piece has proposed a criterion we can use to distinguish the two: aesthetic, but not mindful, experiences involve a readiness to judge, evaluate, or compare the content of experience.
Grossman, Paul Niemann, Ludger Schmidt, Stefan Walach, Harald (2004) ‘Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: a Meta-Analysis’ Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57: 35-43.
Irvin, Sherri (2008) ‘Scratching an Itch’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 66: 25-35.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991) Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life Bantam Book: London.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2009) Happiness: Essential Mindful Practices Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA.