The Mindful Mona Lisa: Experience and Enlightenment | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Mindful Mona Lisa: Experience and Enlightenment

By Max Herman
wikimedia Mona Lisa



Every eighth blog in this series, I like to include the full painting of the Mona Lisa.

This is partly to confirm how my perception of it is evolving; and partly so the reader can do the same.

It also seems proper to see if my hypotheses about the painting are stunting and eroding its aesthetic power, or on the contrary sustaining and enriching it.  So far the latter has been true.  I see the painting more sharply now, with more movement, more specificity, and certainly much greater unity of effect and intent.

Can a mindfulness-oriented approach to the painting endure over time?  In this experiment as well, I find that a meditative state – alert but resting – helps bring out the intensity, scope, and agility of the work, even its sturm und drang.  Meditation has this paradoxical effect, like the focused power of flowing vortices, and often allows us to see the familiar with fresh eyes.

This blog series is based on a few simple hypotheses:

  1. We are meant to meditatively engage with the sitter, who is simultaneously meditatively engaging with us.  The sitter is our peer, neither superior nor inferior: our intersubjective mirror.
  2. The painting is an allegorical portrait of Experience -- Leonardo’s core value -- with which he integrates art and science, truth and beauty, affirming humanity’s potential and our hopes.
  3. Because the Experience we see is in the present, we cannot label it easily and therefore look further to the background for context.  There we see the natural forces of Leonardo’s science: rivers, geology, mountains, and sky, the primordial macrocosm.
  4. The bridge is a subtle but central structure in the work.  It returns the viewer from the macrocosm to the microcosm.  It blends into the shawl and garment which together represent technology (i.e., human artifice) and its products, which are both subject to the flow of necessity through time and clearly distinguished from Experience as such.  They clothe and support her but she is eternally their superior and creator, related but apart, and the right hand points us to this.
  5. Finally we return to the sitter, our peer, and the entire cycle resets like a fugue or octave, or whorls in the water of a river at its banks.  Diverse elements flow, blend, interweave, and metamorphose, just as Experience does as it engages Nature with science and art, interfusing and unifying the composition on all levels.

In these hypotheses, Experience is consistent with the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment.  Both principles map the inner and outer worlds blending in dynamic forms while never becoming identical.  Their connections are created ever-anew, ineffable and irreducible.  Indigenous traditions have concepts that compare very closely as well, whereby through a combination of skill and humility we can actively experience reality, learn, and evolve through time. 

The smile, like that in Buddhist and archaic Greek sculpture or the indigenous trickster figure, is both confident in and expressive of its presence in the now of being – of Enlightenment, and of Experience. 

We can be too.


Next week:  Hippocratic Medicine