My Mind and My Skull

I’ve been working on developing a method- something repeatable and hopefully explainable- of mindfully drawing as a meditative practice. To this end (“end”- ha!) I’ve been drawing almost every morning for at least a half an hour for the past few months. I’ll flesh out how I’m understanding some of these terms before I try to relate my experience.

Mindfulness– A mental state of observing the present without judgement, prediction, attachment to future outcomes or analysis of the past. This includes observing one’s thoughts and feelings as they happen. Notice, but don’t pursue. See the thought or feeling for what it is- a passing state. Yes, it’s real but it’s not permanent and one can be deliberate about level of involvement. With physical surroundings and sensations; again- notice, but don’t judge.

Meditation– This term refers to a lot of things the way “exercise” can mean a lot of things. Exercise can mean weight lifting, yoga, dance, running, boxing, et cetera. Meditation can mean anything from listening to a relaxing audio track while you fall asleep to trying to levitate or astrally project your consciousness out of your body. It can get pretty fancy. For my purposes, meditation means a special time set aside to practice being in a mindful state.

Drawing– This is also a huge hugeHUGE category. If you start trying to box this term in, it will defy you at every boundary you set- which is very exciting. The flip side is that most fruitful practices come with design constraints. With that in mind, I present my (evolving) constraints in place of a definition of “drawing”. I am drawing from visual observation, on paper, with a pencil or a pen. I am not using an eraser at any point. I am not using any tools to aid my seeing (for example, a sighting stick) and trying not to use techniques I learned to represent shapes/volumes/values/etc. This last part- not using techniques- is probably the most difficult part, but I also think it’s what makes this a mindfulness practice.

Now that I know what I’m doing (ha!), I’m ready to draw.

I get up pretty early, stumble down the stairs with bleary eyes and swat my hands in the direction of coffee… You don’t need to know the whole routine, just understand that once I’ve got some coffee, breakfast and morning news in me, I’m ready to draw. I pick a subject- today it’s an animal skull- and get my sketchbook, pens, pencil, and my phone. I use an app called “Insight Timer” to time my drawing. It’s handy, but any timer or method of timing will do. I set the timer for a half an hour and begin.

First, I take a few breaths with my eyes closed, sitting upright, feet flat on the floor, hands still. I try to pay attention to my breath using a little mental checklist. Nose, face, jaw, throat, shoulders, ribs, belly. I try to follow my breath past each of these. (If you look into mindfulness or meditation at all- “breathe breathe breathe breathe breathe….”) I listen to my quiet house. I try to ignore my cat.

I open my eyes and look at my object. I have to stop myself from picking up my pencil and starting to hash out the shape. This is part of resisting my training. When I’m not mindfully drawing- when I’m drawing to WIN!- I start with light lines and ovals. I try to get relative shape mapped out, length versus width, angles and relationships, etc. In my trained-drawing, I’d also start hitting areas of deepest value and locating highlights- just a gentle shade to begin with. But no! This precious time is for mindfully drawing, so I need to resist! I simply don’t touch my pencil for a while. I look at my object, really look. I try to listen with my eyes to see.

This is tricky with ambiguous objects. The skull I chose has been damaged- part of the front of it is broken away. The jaws are intact, as is the back dome of the skull and most of the eye sockets, but the area that would be the bridge of the nose up to the space between the eyes is missing and the spongy, lacy sinus cavities are exposed. This is a tough area to look at and see because there aren’t any clear lines or clear areas of value or shape. This is where letting go of prediction and evaluation are important, I have to loosen my grip on my desire for a clear line, shape, value and just trust my eye on this rocky terrain.

I pick up my pencil and start somewhere “easier”, the bottom of the jaw. I draw a line slowly slowly slowly… Following the outside of the skull. I try not to look at my drawing too much and move slowly. The goal is to sync my hand up with my eye. When I’m doing this well, it’s like my sight, the focus of my vision is the point of the pencil touching the shape itself. The pace is the same, the rises, falls, turns and arcs line up with where my eye is. It’s like a mime caught in an invisible box, my pencil on the paper must trace the boundary, make a reality in the blank space of the page- treating where my eye/sight touches as solid reality for my hand. It brings me into the present with the skull. I have a skull and teeth and a lattice of sinus cavities too, and I will die, rot and break someday as well. But to be honest, I don’t really think about that very clearly. I try to just listen with my eyes, touch it with my sight, say it with my hand.

And I am trying my best. I really am. But at the same time my to-do list pops up in my head, chunks of songs or movies run around, the mound of dirty dishes chatters at me, my cat climbs into my lap and insists on being petted. (She used to get fed in the mornings as well as at night. We’ve switched to just feeding her at night, but she’s hopeful and keeps fighting the good fight.)

And, honestly, I think about you. A lot. As I watch myself draw, I narrate to you. Sometimes you’re a loving friend with whom I can relax and share my excitement and sincerity with, but then you morph into someone I admire and am intimidated by. Sometimes you’re an attractive and cool stranger and I can’t read your reactions and spend my time wondering if my outfit is too wonky or shabby. (The outfit I’m wearing is in the future in my head too.) Sometimes you think this is all really cool, but you don’t know me very well and I’m scared you’ll find out what a dork I actually am. Sometimes you do know me well and have watched me fail over and over again in the past- you both love and remind me. Sometimes you tell me this is a silly, gimmicky, cliche, and an indulgent waste of time. Sometimes you ask me why I think I’m qualified to try to develop this into a practice, writings, workshops…

I rehearse your praise and rejection, as though bracing for it now will somehow lessen the blow when it finally lands. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. It’s bad enough just drawing with the knowledge of an audience on the other side- and I am good at drawing- but thinking over explaining, even trying to guide a practice- you, dear audience, you loom. 

To assert some space, there’s something I need to say to you. When I see and hear your reactions to my efforts, I feel annoyed because I need freedom within my own set aside time to develop this practice both for my own good and in hopes of sharing it with my larger community. I need this time alone with myself to explore this by myself. There will be time in the future for you to give me feedback. Would you be willing to wait outside until I’m ready to give you my attention?

I finally get you to back off and give me some space. I notice my drawing is coming out pretty well and pat myself on the back for drawing good. Then I notice myself patting myself on the back and notice that I just judged that. Which I’m not supposed to do. But then I notice myself judging myself judging. I am an excellent noticer. Which is also a judgement. Crap.


I set my pen down (I’ve moved onto pen), sit up, put my feet flat on the floor, and close my eyes again. I go through my breathing again. I pat myself on the back for remembering to breathe and reset my posture. I notice this judgement, judge the judgement, notice the judging of the judgement, mentally flip off the part of my mind that is monitoring this, open my eyes and look at the skull.

The little skull, that’s the important thing. The skull and it’s cast shadow which I haven’t drawn yet because I find cast shadows boring and difficult. But the cast shadow cannot be divided from the skull. It grounds it on the table where my paper is resting, where my hand is moving in harmony with my eye that I refocus on the skull. I remind myself to relax my hand. The universe can be extrapolated from a piece of sponge cake (any other Hitchhiker’s fans out there?)…

Next, the inside of the skull’s former mouth- I can see the lower jaw receding and the points of the upper teeth just poking out below the side that’s closer to me. I’m very tempted to block the shape in as a long, jagged rectangle with my pencil and then chip the details out of that. But that is my training, and I resist. I step off onto the white of the paper with my pen and follow the little wedges and ridges and how the bone molds around the roots of the teeth…

I’m singing to myself in my head and try to guide it- gently this time- back to the skull…

The little pit where the lower jaw joins the skull…

The way the cast shadow and the lower back corner of the dome are almost indistinguishable, they are so close in value… It is tempting to insert information that I can’t see….

And there you are again, audience, as I start explaining this little ambiguous corner. I begin counting the pencils and pens you will need. I try to look away from you again and watch the lines and shades…

The shade in the eye socket…

That dark pit just below the eye… and the other tiny ones towards the front of the lower jaw….

Eventually the timer winds down and dings it’s little ding. But I don’t stop drawing right away, I want to finish it (whatever that means). I keep drawing, but in only a few minutes my to-do list, the dishes, the cat will all get my attention and I let them retain it this time. I either relax, or relax out of relaxing. It’s hard to tell which. I breathe and rub my face. My eyes turn back into my eyes, the skull turns back into a skull, and I break our connection to the table when I pick it up and stand up.

Usually I take a few notes in my sketchbook, but today I wrote this.

I should go do the dishes now.  

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