Meditating at a Museum Helped Me Connect More Deeply with Art

Kelsey Ables
Jun 18, 2019 4:50PM

Photo by Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images.

For me, Claude Monet’s water lilies are many things before they are art. They’re the background of Facebook profile photos, the covers of coffee table books, the pattern on a skirt, and the designs on thank-you cards I had to write as a child. During my visits to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), they function like one of those Casper mattress ads on the subway—once intriguing, now just another piece of scenery no more stimulating than the MTA maps. I could not tell you the last time I really looked at the water lilies.

Every month, MoMA opens its doors early for “Quiet Mornings,” to offer museumgoers the opportunity to spend more deliberate, slow time with its collection and exhibitions, and to participate in a guided meditation. On a muggy June morning, during one such event, I decided to take a moment to try to see Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26)anew, resting my eyes on the center of the canvas where light hues of pink emerge modestly from heavy swaths of blue.


MoMA runs its “Quiet Mornings” in collaboration with Flavorpill, a media and events company that has brought yoga and meditation classes to museums like MOCA Los Angeles and the Getty, among other cultural institutions. “Museums are cultural cathedrals,” Sascha Lewis, Flavorpill’s co-founder, explained, adding that both art and meditation can inspire us and reshape the way we see ourselves. “Combining art and wellness feels like a natural fusion,” he added.

Museums around the country share his sentiment. New York’s Rubin Museum offers lessons in “mindfulness meditation” alongside its collection of art from the Himalayan regions. L.A.’s Hammer Museum, the Cleveland Museum, and the Denver Art Museum have also added mindfulness programming to their calendars.

Some are skeptical of the role of these activities coming to museums, arguing that the art museum has become an apathetic backdrop to unrelated physical activities. But I was skeptical for another reason: Meditation has become so buzzy, I’ve grown to associate it, like Monet’s water lilies, with its commercial trappings. Meditation and the mindfulness movement have been co-opted by so many entrepreneurs and Instagram influencers, I wasn’t sure what it means to meditate anymore.

I walked into MoMA’s sculpture garden, where the meditation session was held, feeling unenthused about sitting on a floor pillow alongside dozens of strangers in the most congested part of Manhattan. The smell of a food cart wafted into the courtyard; a construction crane descended ominously overhead; an alarm sounded in the distance. I felt a little too close to the grime and noise of New York for comfort. But that soon changed.

Gemma Lewis, a meditation leader and spiritual teacher, led the group in integrative meditation, which asks you to focus on your awareness. You take in the stimuli around you—the grunt of a garbage truck, the feeling of sunlight on your skin, the hum of the buildings. And then, you take note of the part of yourself that is observing those stimuli.

“Integrative meditations are these really powerful ways for us to start to discern the difference between our experience and our awareness of experience,” Lewis explained. “Once you start to notice the part of yourself that is witnessing the experience, you really start having the power to become present in the moment.”

“You’re actually seeing what is in front of you and you’re noticing things that you might not have,” she continued. As I sat in the sculpture garden, my mind wandered upstairs, back to the Water Lilies. They felt new, unencumbered by the associations that have cropped up around them. The social media posts and consumer products became background, irrelevant to the work, in the same way the shriek of a horn and revving of engines outside MoMA fell away during meditation.

Art history courses teach you to examine art with your mind; every bit of canvas can be subject to analysis and criticism. An upbringing in the social media age teaches you to look at art with the eyes of everyone but yourself. Which colors will look good with what filter? What part of the exhibit should I story?

Art too often becomes something to be consumed—either by Instagram feeds or analysis. By this logic, I had already “consumed” the Water Lilies. But meditation foregrounded the experiential part of viewing art. Monet’s work became not the masterpiece it’s been branded and idolized as, but a mere assemblage of pigments dancing across a canvas. Perhaps it’s better that way.

MoMA’s “Quiet Morning” was not quiet at all. But amidst the noise came clarity—an engaged art experience can happen anywhere. Even, perhaps, while dodging selfie sticks in front of Starry Night (1889) on MoMA’s free Friday nights. Even as a baby in a stroller screams back at a Francis Bacon painting. Even in front of those damn Water Lilies.

Kelsey Ables