100 years ago Winston Churchill wasn’t yet Prime Minister of Britain, but he was a leading politician making key decisions in World War 1.
He was stressed! (even though that term wasn’t in use then)
Unsurprisingly, he describes his job as causing him great anxiety.
He felt removed from the action with too much time on his hands to worry.
It was no coincidence that it was at this point that he found painting. Or rather, he describes the Muse of Painting as having come to his rescue.
Over the holidays I’ve been reading ‘Painting as a Pastime’ by Winston Churchill. In this compact little book he explains his theory of why painting is such a good ‘pastime’ to cultivate.
As he sees it the key is that, to most of us, painting is an activity that uses a different part of our mind than our normal everyday activities.
Instead of reading, thinking, analysing, talking and even worrying, painting requires close observation (REAL ‘seeing’ rather than thinking) and hand-eye coordination.
Churchill describes how the worn parts of the mind can be rested and restored, not just by giving them a break, but by actively using different parts of the brain.
Churchill wrote this long before the modern neuroscience discoveries about the differing roles of the left and right hemispheres of our brain, but to me it does sound like Churchill was observing the way that the ‘right brain’ activity of painting can offer rest for the ‘left’ brain usually engaged in analytical activities.
As he puts it:
It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’…”I will give you a good rest”, ‘I will go for a long walk’, or ‘I will lie down and think of nothing’. The mind keeps busy just the same. If it has been weighing and measuring it goes on weighing and measuring. If it has been worrying, it goes on worrying. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendent, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.
It is for this reason that Churchill argues that having a hobby is VITAL for everyone.
I find it really interesting.
What Churchill seems to be describing is the need to be able to ‘switch off’. For the majority of people in the West (especially of working age), hobbies are increasingly rare.
Often people say that they are too busy for a hobby, when the reality is that they use TV, often for hours each day, as their way to ‘switch off’.
TV is certainly the easy way to relax. I know I watch more than my fair share of it.
It’s really absorbing.
But as author Eckhart Tolle has described, and as you’ve probably observed for yourself, most TV watching as putting you into a sort of semi-consciousness which is both relaxing but ultimately depleting of energy and creativity:
In contrast, engaging in an activity such as painting involves being fully conscious, ‘total’ or fully mentally present in what you do.
As Churchill, writing before the age of TV, puts it:
Painting is complete distraction. I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the painting has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. All one’s mental life, such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task.
He could also be describing meditation – from Eastern philosophy or from more modern mindfulness practices. And I believe there is a link here.
If one can get into the ‘flow’ state with our painting, we are truly at one with it and the mind is quietened in a positive and restorative way.
And for those of us not well practiced in meditation (I for one am always promising myself I will make more time for it), painting can prove an especially useful addition to helping bring balance to our mental and emotional lives.
It certainly did for the remarkable Winston Churchill who managed to keep a clear head throughout the Second World War and played a key role in providing confident, reassuring leadership for Britain during that frightening time.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts on this subject and whether you find painting to be restorative for yourself.
Please let me know in the comments below!