5 Ways Meditation is Like a Monet Painting

Monet Landscape 3

As I sat in silent meditation a few weeks ago, I had a lot of profound thoughts. I pondered deep questions, like “Do I follow too many people on Twitter?”

At one point, I noticed the thought “meditation kind of reminds me of Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen.” {I know I’m not the ONLY one who was thinking that at the time… right?}

I had just stood in front of several of those paintings at the Orsay Museum in Paris two weeks before. As my mind settled into silence on retreat, something clicked and this analogy gave me a new way to think about the insights gained in meditation, a new way to explain why meditation can have such a transformational effect on how we view our selves and our world.

The power of analogy is that it allows us to explain something new by likening it to something already known. So if you know Monet and the Impressionists, then this analogy will help you better understand meditation. If you know meditation, then read on to learn more about the Impressionists! And if you don’t know either of these … well, keep reading, and just understand that the Buddha was not a bushy-bearded French guy who painted water lilies.

Meditation Monet Painting

1. Impressionable Moments in Time

“My only merit lies in having painted directly in front of nature, seeking to render my impressions of the most fleeting effects.”
Claude Monet


Today we love the Impressionists — Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Degas. It’s hard to find an office building, dentist’s waiting area, or suburban living room that doesn’t have a soothing image of haystacks or irises or ballerinas to calm its occupants.

But the Impressionists were rebels. Their first exhibition in Paris in the 1870s was held in the “Salon of the Rejects” because they refused to conform to the standard subjects and techniques of the French Academy. They painted with bright colors! They didn’t mix their paint! They painted landscapes, for crying out loud!

In fact, the label “Impressionism” was coined as a derogatory term, because these paintings, in the words of one critic, had no meaning: they were “just a bunch of impressions.”

That was exactly the point! An impressionist painting captures a momentary, transient now on the canvas — the shadows, the light, the movement of the wind. A moment later, it will look different. But this is NOW.

And at its most simple, meditation is awareness of now.  The next moment will be different. What fleeting impressions — feelings, sensations, thoughts — are here rightnow?

2. The Nature of Impermanence

“I am following Nature without being able to grasp her.”
Claude Monet

As we ponder the NOW, we come face to face with impermanence. In twenty minutes of meditation, we may experience calm, boredom, elation, irritation, sleepiness, alertness, happiness, and sadness. Nothing lasts. It’s always shifting. The Buddha told his disciples, “There is no form… no feeling… no perception… no consciousness that is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change….”

Monet was fascinated by change. One of his most famous series of paintings, and the one that inspired my epiphany on my retreat, is a series of over 30 depictions of the cathedral in Rouen. These paintings illustrate how a seemingly permanent and stable object — the cathedral — appears completely different, depending on different lighting, atmospheric conditions, and the time of day.

Rouen Cathedral Series

In this series, the subject of the painting really isn’t the cathedral — it is light itself. The building is simply there for the light to momentarily rest on. The cathedral is the anchor.

Same cathedral, different time, different lighting, different weather.

Same you*, different time, different emotions, different weather. In meditation, let your body, or breath, be the anchor for everything to momentarily rest on. Observe without grasping at or engaging with whatever arises.

{* See #4…}

3. From Sensation to Perception

“I can only draw what I see.”
Claude Monet

Though artists since the Renaissance attempted to faithfully reproduce reality, it’s often said that they painted not only what the eye saw, but what the mind knew to be there as well. The Impressionists abandoned that approach. Monet said, “Impressionism is only direct sensation.” The artist should simply paint what he sees. Art historian Wendy Beckett {a.k.a. Sister Wendy} states that Monet “really saw,” portraying things we often miss, like “the color of snow, the color of shadows, the color of water.”

The Rose Arches

When I teach Impressionism in my history classes, I ask students to remember when they colored in Kindergarten with an eight-pack of Crayolas. Leaves were green, skies blue, shadows black. Then we look outside — and we realize even the 154-pack of Crayolas may not have enough colors to capture all that we see.

We look at the sky and we perceive it as blue, because we “know” skies are blue. But this perception happens in the mind. Sensation — in this case, seeing — happens with the eyes. Truly seeing means taking in the sensory information before the brain has a chance to process it and create an interpretation, which may or may not correspond with reality.

In meditation, we come to realize the ways in which our minds do this all the time. We take in a limited amount of outside stimuli and, because we like narrative and coherence and explanation, our monkey mind takes over and tells a story about what’s happening. And these stories can cause unnecessary suffering, because they’re usually wrong, or at least incomplete.

For example, the first time my principal observed me during my first year of teaching, he scribbled furiously for an hour with {what I assumed to be} a perpetual scowl on his face. “He hates this lesson,” I told myself. “This lesson sucks. It’s terrible. I suck. I’m a horrible teacher and I am going to lose my job.” Not surprisingly, the rest of the day did not go well.

When I met with my principal a few days later, I received a glowing evaluation. Sure, there were some things to work on, but he had lots of positive feedback. Turns out, he just takes lots of detailed notes during observations. He concentrates on what’s happening {which on his face looks like a frown.}

How much happier would we be if we observed the world as Monet did, taking time to linger in sensation rather than getting lost in perceptions? 

4. I Think, Therefore, I Am… Not?

“She’s a full-on Monet! … It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”
Cher, in Clueless

Impressionists used small strokes of unmixed paint to create vibrant colors and a sense of movement in their works. From far away, a Monet landscape looks like what we might see in reality — shimmering leaves, blurred outlines of shadows or clouds — but when we get close it indeed looks like “a big old mess.”

The Buddha taught much the same thing about the self. From far away, before we’ve examined it, it looks like a coherent, solid, permanent entity. But once we look carefully, we see that the being we take to be “self” is simply a collection of elements (technically, khandhas or aggregates) — body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness (knowing). All of which are, of course, constantly changing and shifting.

This non-self doctrine of Buddhism sometimes freaks people out {right now you might be yelling in Cartesian rage, I THINK, DAMMIT, THEREFORE, I AM!!!} Don’t freak out. Obviously you have a body and you act and you think and you exist. This is simply about not attaching and clinging to the “you.” It’s about dropping the identification with “I” in “I think, I’m sad, I suck….”

Buddhist practitioner and teacher Joseph Goldstein writes, “One of the most freeing insights of meditation practice is realizing that the only power thoughts have is the power we give them.” We don’t have to identify with our thoughts or emotions or pain and think they are “us.” They’re just there, and pretty soon, they won’t be.

Remember that scene in the museum from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron stares and stares at the painting until it dissolves? {Yes, I know the painting is a Seurat, and he was a post-Impressionist, not an Impressionist, but it still works.} Cameron has a moment of insight while looking at the image. Maybe this is what allowed him to separate himself from his anxiety — it wasn’t him. It dissolved. Just watch…

5. Appreciation Takes Time

Impression: Sunrise

A contemporary news story reported that the first Impressionist exhibit in 1874 so upset and disturbed one attendee that he ran from the building and tried to eat his arm. Critics said the works could hardly be termed “art.” And then about 130 years later, a Monet water lilies painting sold for over $80 million.

It takes time to accept new ideas and practices. If you’re just beginning your meditation practice, give yourself time. Many readers have told me that they gave up meditation because “nothing happened.” Or they thought they were “doing it wrong.” Meditation can bring us profound insights, but it can take time and persistence.

That’s why we call it a practice. In fact, we could even call it an art.

At least, that’s the impression that I get.


Paintings, in order of appearance {all Monet}:
Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies)
Water Lilies
Haystacks (sunset)
The Cathedral at Rouen (series)
The Rose Arches, Giverny
Impression: Sunrise
Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    What a wonderful post! As someone who processes almost everything in images, this makes perfect sense to me! And as someone with a BA in Art History I appreciate the side lesson! You probably already know this, but Monet’s technique was to bring several canvasses with him, all works in progress, and change them out through the day as the light changed, a true practice that lead to treasured images. He is one of my favorites!
    Nancy Lowell recently posted…Corn Clafouti, What a Great Breakfast!My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Nancy — I had no idea you had your degree in Art History! Teaching art history is one of my favorite parts of the AP Euro curriculum. And yes, his techniques are so innovative, yet so basic…. of course water has color, of course leaves have tons and tons of colors. And to think people didn’t even think it was art!

  2. says

    Fantastic post! Love Monet! I went to an exhibition of his work and was amazed at how many times he drew/painted the same thing from a slightly different angle reframing until he got the right effect. You nail it with the calming and transporting effect of looking at a Monet! I’ve never been to the places he painted, but his paintings feel like places I’ve been to…

    Wonderful to see you at BH14! (even though I was too tired to have a functioning brain)
    linda anselmi recently posted…Words: “… Poke Life …”My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Indeed, it’s such a fascinating way of looking at things, and such a good reminder that we are never seeing the whole story…. We visited Giverny several years ago and it was gorgeous! And yes, it was great to connect with you again at BH!

  3. says

    OH MY GOD, this is brilliance. I feel like I’ll have to reread it a few times to fully absorb it, because there is so much that I want to remember and remind myself of here. This sentence, for example, is a life key for me: “How much happier would we be if we observed the world as Monet did, taking time to linger in sensation rather than getting lost in perceptions? ” I am so stuck in perception that I spend most of my time being miserable about the horrible things that didn’t happen in my life (to quote Arianna Huffington quoting Michel de Montaigne).
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  4. says

    Great job, Sarah!!! Seriously. You know, it’s funny that you mention that scene from Farris Bueller’s Day Off – I think about that scene fairly frequently, and have ever since I saw the movie for the first time. It’s such a powerful movie moment, and (obviously) one that stays with a person (although I must admit that in younger days, I may have watched it at least once/month, so I’ve seen it, a lot).
    I really appreciated your analogy on light and emotions. How the light on the cathedral is ever-changing, as our perceptions and emotions are. Such an important thing to remember and so obvious, big-picture, but so easily forgotten when in the throws of a particular one.
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…Our Land: For Ava, in TreatmentMy Profile

  5. says

    Oh, this was really interesting. And there’s a tiny part of me thinking – why didn’t I see it?! Heck, I used to teach art, and Monet is one of my favourite artists! When I learned about I the Impressionists at school, I loved that they painted what they saw, on the spot. So I went off to one of my favourite spots (a rocky beach, surrounded by hills) and painted “en plein air.” I eventually took up design instead, but when my daughters were younger we went out and painted light again (this time with a few trees.) You are totally right – his paintings were of light, more than anything else.

    I love that you teach students that art is about seeing, not just knowing. I used to say the same thing when I taught art – that we draw as much with our eyes as we do with our hands. One of the most fascinating lessons we had in teacher training was on how children’s art develops. I can’t remember at what age children start drawing that they know, but when drawing people small children draw huge heads and very little of the body – because that’s where they focus, what matters to them. I often wonder if instead of teaching children we should just sit down and learn from them.
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