Art, Meditation, and Art as Meditation

Christian Espicha "Fishes"
Christian Espicha "Fishes"

In the zendo, not only is mutism allowed, it is required. It even has a name – The Noble Silence

By Christian D. Espicha

I’ve had extensive formal meditation training, and though I find this practice helpful I have not disciplined myself to adhere to a regular practice schedule. Because of this – and because I know a solid spiritual practice (which includes meditation) definitely helps with balancing my sensory processing as well as the emotional reactions to my environment and the people therein – I regularly attend various Buddhist retreats and meditation groups.

I find the structure and support which comes with practicing in a group helpful. Usually I don’t feel comfortable around people and prefer to be alone in an environment I can control, but I feel more comfortable in a meditative setting such as in a zendo (meditation hall) which is by design calm and controlled governed as it is by strict ritual and form.

The ritual and form appeal to my autism. I enjoy the repetition of chanting and mantras, the hypnotic nature of Tibetan singing bowls. In the Soto Japanese style of meditation we all sit facing a plain white wall, together yet alone. In the zendo, not only is mutism allowed, it is required. It even has a name – The Noble Silence.

The hand mudras in Tibetan ritual even look like some of my autistic mannerisms. Even rocking is permitted! My sitting robe is a uniform of sorts and requires no deliberation when dressing – it is worn according to regulation and never varies. It is also comfortable and has huge sleeves in which to secret my squishy. I twiddle with it even during meditation, especially if it is 45 minutes or longer.

Hidden in the sleeves of my robe my stimming doesn’t disturb others. The monks at my local monastery know I have autism and are accommodating. Because of this I have progressed in my meditation and am able to participate in the full program of training for longer periods than when I began about 8 years ago.

Just as there are many branches of Buddhism – or any religion for that matter; Buddhist is not the only type of meditation – there are many methods of meditation. Some methods focus on the breadth, for instance. Others use visualizations and mantras, sometimes in conjunction.

Some close the eyes; others keep them open. It doesn’t matter which method one uses. All lead to a place where body and mind are calm and serene. Heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, breathing becomes deeper, slower. Thoughts and emotions arise but are relinquished, not dwelt upon. The sights and sounds of the world may still be noticed but they too do not make the strong impression they usually do. With practice this state follows us into our everyday life so that life in essence is a meditation as well.

The scientific and medical communities have noted the benefits of meditation for the general population for years and more recently studies with autistics have suggested the same. The problem is getting autistics to meditate in the first place!

I was 15 when I was first introduced to meditation by a staff member attempting to calm me down. I was in the “quiet room” screaming and banging – my episodes of decomposition were legendary and severe, often lasting hours, at times several a day. He gave me a mala (rosary).

I was fascinated by it, especially when he showed me how to say “om mane pad me hum” while counting the beads. Actually, you don’t literally count, you click through the beads, one for every mantra repetition. When you come to the start bead you reverse the process and keep reciting, either silently or aloud. I love the little “click click” sound and the smooth feel of the stones in my fingers. Many of my stimming activities involve the fingers. Did you know our fingertips contain more nerve endings than any other place on our body? I believe mine were born with a need for extra stimulation and both my squishies and my malas provide that. Without a squishy or mala I twist my hair, bite my arms, bang my chin.

Curiously, at Autistry Studios I had a peer who twisted the same lock of hair on the right side of his head and almost identical to me.

Andlan and me twisting our hair
Ian and me twisting our hair

The mala is slightly more socially acceptable. I even bring my squishy to the zendo. I take photos of my squishies in various locations, rather like that garden gnome in the TV commercials for Expedia.com. I then edit and digitally enhance the photos with programs I will discuss in another blog post. Here is a picture of my pink squishy in the meditation hall:

Zendo Squishy

A seed was planted. Although for years I remained unable to remain still long enough to gain much benefit from formal meditative practice. Besides, I thought it was lame … like yoga and psychobabble.

Instead, I liked O.T.

O.T., short for Occupational Therapy, is what used to be called “basket weaving” in old books and movies. It was here I started being a prolific artist. I especially enjoyed making collages and working with oil pastels. The occupational therapist had pretty good art supplies and it was a way to escape the unit. The O.T. room was peaceful. When I was engrossed in creating art I was focused and calm – more effective than any medication by far.

I’ve always been drawn to art. I still remember being introduced to it in kindergarten. The teacher, baffled at my hostility towards the other children, was at a loss what to do with me. She provided the easel and kiddie paints.

It was love at first sight.

Here is the first thing I ever painted – a clown:

Christian Espicha "Clown"
Christian Espicha “Clown”

And I also had unusually good hand-eye coordination as shown by this yarn bird I made in first grade:

Christian Espiciha "Bird"
Christian Espicha “Bird”

I continued to draw and win art contests up until I had to leave home in my early teens. As an adult I have published and sold my art – though I don’t have much ambition.

Here is a collage I did in O.T. at age 15:

Christian Espicha "Egg Face"
Christian Espicha “Egg Face”

The magazine pages were from a journal of psychiatry and the ad was for a psychotropic drug. I remember it well – it read, “The fragile shell of the borderline patient.” I was obsessed with that picture and tore it out of all the magazines I could find it in. I drew on it with oil crayons. That collage has been published in various places and also, framed, hung on my wall. It is also my avatar on one of my social platforms.

Drawing was something I was good at, could do alone, and something I was praised for. Not being interested in other people, it was not surprising I did not draw them. If I looked at a photo I usually rendered it pretty much like the photo – I got creative mostly with color, and today this is still true though I am a bit less “literal” nowadays. My favorite subject was and still is animals.

Here are two I drew while hospitalized around age 19:

Christian Espicha "Fishes"
Christian Espicha “Fishes”
Christian Espicha "Psychedlic Elephant"
Christian Espicha “Psychedelephant”

Buddhism and meditation saved me from being institutionalized. They were going to do that if I didn’t get myself under control. So, forced, I used meditative techniques to learn some self-control. It took a long time, well into middle age, and I still have epic “meltdowns” on occasion. Looking at Buddhist images, including my own, helps calm me and others enjoy it as well.

Here is a more recent piece:

Christian Espicha "Bodhidharma"
Christian Espicha “Bhodidharma”

This is Bodhidharma. I drew him on a type of shelf fungus called an artist conk. You actually draw on a mushroom! It’s really cool and I discovered it while staying at a Korean Zen monastery in Rhode Island. I also took pictures of Buddhist iconography and manipulated them digitally, another medium I enjoy.

Buddhism taught me compassion as well – something I was told I would never have as an autistic. Later I would learn autistics can actually be more compassionate than most people.

These days I still do animal art but have also expanded to represent Buddhist themes.

I made this Tibetan mask a few years ago and it gets lot of comments, especially at Halloween:

Christian Espicha "Tibetan Mask"
Christian Espicha “Tibetan Mask”

I definitely see art as meditation and meditation is both an art form and the subject of much of my art.

I will be forever grateful I discovered both – they are my salvation from the frustration of autism.

***

I am Christian Espicha, an adult woman with autism. Though diagnosed with autism as a young child, I didn’t receive appropriate services until recently when I became a client at Autistry Studios in San Rafael, CA. The reason I didn’t receive services is partly because I possess a genius IQ. At age 45, I was the oldest member to graduate from the Humboldt County Structure Firefighting Academy. I completed EMT training and worked as a firefighter/EMT in Trinity County, California. I performed with my fellow firefighters montain resues and recoveries, assisted the Forest Service with fires in the Trinity National Forest and assisted with water rescues/recoveries on the Trinity River. I’m also a writer and an artist. See my website at www.autistryandme.wordpress.com my art and writing can be seen on Krishnachameleon.  Follow me on Twitter @KrishtianDamian

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