24 March 2023

David Hockney and the Meaning of Meditation

Meditating has brought me a lot of good: easier access to peace and tranquility, more clarity of mind, and a more productive and beneficial way of dealing with emotions. And yet I regularly wonder what the point of meditation is. Spending time on a pillow paying attention to my physical and mental experiences. Why should I?

A common answer to that question is that by meditating you start to see things as they are. You knock the dust off, leave your judgment on the situation and look at the experience itself with a fresh look and clean lenses. You start to see better, more directly and more naturally, is often the implication. At the latter, when I say ‘more natural’, I start having doubts, because why should one way of observing the experience produce a more natural image than the other? The promise that is often linked to it by various meditation approaches is that in this way new insight automatically (sic!) arises. In the modern mindfulness movement, for example, the possibility of a ‘conscious response’ to a situation, in classical Buddhism that of ‘enlightenment’, whether it will be realized in the present life or in the distant future.

My hesitation starts with the words ‘natural’ and ‘by itself’. It seems as if we are being given a direction of thought and action without our judgment or ethics playing a role. And as if the new, fresh insight automatically implies a better direction of our actions.

It was with this doubt about the answer to the question of what the meaning of meditation is in the back of my mind that I recently visited the exhibition Hockney’s Eye in the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. This exhibition did not focus on his beautiful paintings, but on his lifelong preoccupation with how we see the world around us and express it in paintings and drawings. We are all used to the linear perspective, say the disappearance of the lines to the horizon, and that perspective that is certainly dominant in photography, Hockney radically questions. For me, that was a steppingstone to look at the ‘natural seeing’ of experiences in meditation differently.

A landscape is “spatial excitement,” Hockney said. And so it is with the landscape of our experience, in my view. The alternation of sensations, moods and thoughts is multicolored, unexpected, and exciting. Anyone who meditates a little longer will recognize that. What we experience is varied and complex, and even though patterns can sometimes be recognized in it, it can never be grasped from an unambiguous, linear perspective. Everything moves, ‘panta rhei’ as the Greeks said. Movement due to expectations and context, visible in dynamic motifs and vibrant colors, according to Hockney. In meditation you will not see one, natural perspective, but you will explore the multifaceted landscape of experiences, motifs, images, and movements. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the inspirators of contemporary non-religious mindfulness, calls our sensory landscapes the landscapes of sound, air, touch, smell, taste, mood and thought.

The exhibition was in line with this angle and showed Hockney’s work not in a linear temporal development, but from his quest to depict the dimensions of the real world as close as possible to our experience. And for that we have to break with the linear perspective.

A wonderful example of this is the video artwork Woldgate Woods, Winter 2010 in which he projects 9 viewpoints from digital cameras as a whole and thus radically breaks the linear perspective of the road through the forest. “Most people feel like the world looks like a picture” and take that as the natural way of seeing it. But our experience is much broader and more varied, he says. It is not a tram track to the horizon, which shows up of one’s own accord when we look calmly. On the contrary, our experience is much more fluid. “Our eye moves all the time. If my eye moves in a certain direction, then the perspective also goes in that direction. So, it’s constantly changing”.

Hockney’s final conclusion was that he no longer saw his painting as a form of depiction but came to see it as a form of drawing. And I think that’s the way it is with meditation. It’s not about looking at an image of our experiences, but to see different perspectives in the flow of our experience with the help of our uninhibited powers of observation. Just look at his Viewers Looking at a Ready-made with Skull and Mirrors. There is no one natural perspective that we discover ‘automatically’, like a photograph creates a linear perspective that runs towards the horizon. The act of meditation is precisely that we let go of one perspective, our habitual perspective, and make room for more diversity, more points of view. And in that diversity, we can once again express our values with a critical openness that the linear perspective did not give. We draw our perspectives, as it were, as scenarios of possibilities.

That is the point of meditating. “I began to see for the first time the way things worked, the way my mind was working” (David Hockney).


This blog is inspired by the exhibition Hockney’s Eye in the Teylers Museum and the accompanying beautifully illustrated photo book Hockney’s Eye. The Art and Technology of Depiction.