After studying art history, literature, and cinema, Soizic Michelot spent seven years in a Buddhist monastery, including three years in traditional retreat. Also trained in secular approaches to mindfulness, she now teaches meditation at the university, in the hospital sector, and to the general public. She has just published a book with Albin Michel editions that connects art and meditation. Through a selection of 100 works, accompanied by finely crafted texts, Soizic invites you to immerse yourself in the world of meditative practice in a new way.
Charmed by her book and curious about her journey and her vision of meditation, we wanted to share this wonderful discovery with you !
Citta Vritti | You spent 7 years in a monastery, 3 of which in traditional retreat. After all these years of meditation, have you solved all your problems? Have you finally become the best version of yourself ?
Soizic Michelot | (laughs) No, I have not solved all my problems at all! And it is no longer my goal today to solve them, even though it once was. Rather, it has allowed me to see that, as a normally constituted human being, I am, as Buddha said, concerned with old age, sickness, and death, mine and those around me. Separation, as well. Being essentially anxious, the practice has rather invited me to stop wanting to solve my problems, to live in good harmony with them, to make my emotions good companions on the journey, and to embrace the course of things as much as possible. Becoming a "better version of myself" is an expression that scares me, an additional neoliberal injunction that can put us in a state of latent competition and generate more self-denigration. In some ways, this quest for self-improvement distances us from our present and what we can do right now. If meditation has made me a "better version", it's not because I've solved all my problems, but perhaps because I've become a slightly more flexible chaos than I was before. To paraphrase South African teacher Rob Nairn, the goal of practice is not to become a perfect being, but a "compassionate chaos".
Citta Vritti | How did you come to meditation ? Was it through art ?
Soizic Michelot | For me, the two are connected from the beginning. I had aesthetic shocks when I was younger, with artists who influenced me a lot. I remember going to an exhibition by Mark Rothko with the desire to understand everything, with a very intellectual approach to art. However, when I arrived in front of one of the canvases, there was a kind of suspension of mental discourse, a suspension of a very narrative identification with myself, and a very strong feeling of connection and permeability with the world around me. Encountering certain artistic works, whether they were pictorial, filmic, or musical, led me to seek a path that I would call spiritual, even though I am not very comfortable with this word. I used my film studies as a pretext to tour Christian monasteries, I was very attracted to the secluded life since childhood. I didn't really know what to practice except silence. Then I ended up in a Buddhist monastery in Auvergne, where I was asked to turn my gaze inward. This reversal of gaze overwhelmed me and I knew that from there everything was going to change. If there's one thing you can't see with your eyes, it's ourselves! However, consciousness does have this reflective capacity. This study of consciousness brought everything together: poetry, art, science... a lot of interests that I didn't know how to connect and that this phenomenology of the mind brought together.
Citta Vritti | Did your first encounter with meditation take place at the monastery ?
Soizic Michelot | Yes, I was 21 years old when I entered the monastery, I am 43 today and at that time the secular approaches to meditation had not crossed the Atlantic. This contemplative science was only transmitted through the dharma, the teachings of Buddha, at that time.
Citta Vritti | What connections have you made with Buddhist teachings ? Have they shaken you as much as meditative practice ?
Soizic Michelot | Both have overwhelmed me. The meditative practice continues to accompany me faithfully, but I am also influenced by Buddhist teachings, even though I don't feel Buddhist today. I studied the sacred texts, the Tibetan texts, a language that has developed, like Sanskrit, a vocabulary of the mind, of the body-mind relationship that we do not have in the West. I am so imbued with it that it has become a culture for me. But I also lived the monastic hell, with dogmatic environments and abuses, which I can now call sectarian, around the usual issues of sex, money, and power. I learned positively from the texts and the practice, and I also learned from my disillusionments, which ultimately joined the teachings of the texts, but I was expecting something perfect. I was in a quest for purity, and I made all the classic spiritual mistakes imaginable: attachment to the master, confusion of the ego with an erasure of identity and body, dogmatism. I was very young, I let go of everything very radically. I had both a very right, very deep aspiration to the contemplative life but there was also a part of escape, because I did not see the meaning of this world, I did not know how to fit in. After 7 years in a monastery, I saw the part of escape in my commitment, and I found the necessary maturity to return to the secular world, with the intention of embodying what I had learned.
Citta Vritti | You entered the monastery at 21, not knowing you would stay there for 7 years… Didn't your parents completely freak out?
Soizic Michelot | Yes, it was very hard for them, because I was breaking with a very materialistic family culture, where it is important to be socially and professionally brilliant and recognized, and with a certain refusal of the religious. But I kept in touch with them, especially during my 3-year retreat, in a written form. The written form allowed to take a step aside, and they understood that I had a real aspiration for this contemplative life.
Citta Vritti | In the so-called traditional monastery where you were, were the teachers Tibetan?
Soizic Michelot | Both Tibetan and Western. The historical teachers were Tibetan. Following the invasion of Tibet (in 1950, Ed.), many masters arrived in Europe and the United States. They found a first circle of disciples in the beat generation, among the hippies, in the 50s-70s, who in turn became teachers.
Citta Vritti | During these 7 years in the monastery, didn't you miss contact with art? To what extent would the frustration of not having access to art have invited you to develop an artistic fiber through thought, imagination, and introspection?
Soizic Michelot | I missed it enormously. In traditional Buddhism, there is a judgment on what is mundane or not, and art is generally considered as a mundanity. I think it all depends on the intention that underlies the creation and what is made of it. Mundanity is all relative! Today, I allow myself to respect my individuality, art has its place and it makes no sense to cut myself off from it.
Citta Vritti | Do you attribute this radicalness to the age you were at ?
Soizic Michelot | Not only. I have seen people of 20 years of incredible maturity, people coming to meditation later in life, who have been practicing for a short time and who develop a clarity, discernment and personal integrity that is very inspiring. I started from where I was. I had a very hard relationship with myself, I didn't know/couldn't do otherwise. Over time, the practice softened this hardness, this radicalness !
Citta Vritti | What made you decide to leave the monastery? How did your 7 years in the monastery accompany you when you confronted a more mundane life?
Soizic Michelot | My life in the monastery was never a disengaged life, as the other is constantly present in the practice. The decision to leave the monastery is related to the feeling of having received so much that it was time to give, also the feeling of having put my finger on enough of my escapism to be able to confront an embodied, positioned, political life. No one asked me to leave, I simply felt that the next part of my journey was no longer in the monastery, in retreat, but in the world. It's the same commitment for me, with different forms.
Citta Vritti | What path brought you from Tibetan Buddhist meditation to the so-called secular mindfulness meditation you teach now? How do you connect these two experiences?
Soizic Michelot | I realized that Buddhism could be more dogmatic than I imagined, with quite strong belief systems. Over time, I allowed myself to develop a more autonomous, more critical thinking about the teachings I had received and especially about the way they were transmitted. I didn't want to transmit in a religious context. At first, I looked at the MBSR programs that were being rolled out in hospitals with a dual eye. On the one hand, I was very touched because the hospital is the place where we touch the most to the precariousness of existence and to very primary sufferings related to our condition, and on the other hand I was wary of these programs taught in only 8 weeks, while it had been 7 years that I was struggling on my cushion! I myself followed this 8-week MBSR cycle with a teacher who had both a Buddhist and secular culture. I found it to be a real masterpiece of intelligence to bring meditation to everyone, and I learned a lot. I also greatly appreciated the very horizontal teaching modalities, without division between "knowing" and "learning". A horizontality finally in the tradition, which speaks of the nature of the Buddha present in each of us and which assumes that we are all endowed with a lot of wisdom, qualities, compassion. From there, I felt comfortable to transmit.
Citta Vritti | Art and meditation are often very codified environments and therefore potentially very excluding for those who do not have these codes. Can they really, in your opinion, constitute universal experiences accessible to all ?
Soizic Michelot | It's true that around meditation, we find a very white, very feminine, and very middle/upper class population. It's a real question, a real problem. In this book, by linking art to meditation, my intention may not be to reach everyone. In the dharma, it is said that there are 83,000 ways to teach, and that this plurality of forms constitutes as many skillful means and access doors for everyone. Art can be one of these means and the aim is precisely not to intellectualize everything. Meditation can bring to the artistic universe, sometimes elitist, the idea of arriving like a blank canvas, without knowledge, without expertise. To simply see how the heart, the body, and the intellect react very spontaneously, and not to approach art as an accumulation of knowledge. Meditation is rather an impoverishment, by the way, in the sense of a return to a certain phenomenology, a very direct relationship to reality, which we can apply to art.
Citta Vritti | What connections do you make between art and meditative experience? Is art a meditative experience? Is meditation an artistic experience ?
Soizic Michelot | The invitation to be creative is inherent in meditation, or in the meditative mind. Meditation is not an imposed creation but a space of emergence, firstly because we make silence. As soon as we create a non-injunctive space, we are in direct contact with the creativity of the mind, with our sensations, our emotions. We are in contact with a spontaneous creativity that is that of the living. It is quite common for good ideas to emerge during meditation, for answers to our questions to be "auto-emergent", more than the fruit of conscious reflection. This creativity does not necessarily aim to create a work of art! Philippe (Filliot, ed.) speaks of "creating a work without a work"; of making our life, our daily life, a work, with many erasures, with the beauty of cracks, mistakes, failed brushstrokes... the beauty of imperfection.
Citta Vritti | Artistic creation and meditation are often seen as potentially narcissistic practices, absorbed in the self. Artists are often also associated with an inevitable image of neurosis, neuroses from which they undoubtedly draw their genius. Your book offers another vision of things; how would you respond to these comparisons? Does creation necessarily feed on neurotic, obsessive minds ?
Soizic Michelot | I think that in all fields, we find often ambivalent intentions: which carry a part of beauty and altruism, but also a more egotistic dimension! Rembrandt spent his life painting his self-portraits, and beyond a possible narcissistic dimension, they also speak to us about the passage of time, aging, the understanding of our own condition, what concerns us all. Meditation has the advantage of showing us when we are too full of ourselves, of freeing up space to be the relay of something larger than oneself.
Citta Vritti | The works chosen for your book come from various horizons, with many recent western works. What did you want to show about meditation through these unusual iconographic choices ?
Soizic Michelot | I deliberately used contemporary works to show that meditation and the honesty of self-examination that results from it are very contemporary commitments. Not in the sense of personal development, but in the sense of a necessary rethinking. In the current state of the world, each of us cannot avoid looking at ourselves. Not to over-responsibilize the individual, because meditation does not exclude reflection on the collective and social processes, but to explore the emotional roots of suffering. I also wanted to favor Western works to say that this is not a subject of exoticism.
Citta Vritti | Detachment, equanimity, acceptance of what is, impermanence: so many notions in Buddhism that today serve to justify a privatization of suffering, judged as being only the result of internal dispositions that would be enough to work with the help of self-techniques, and not of material conditions. How can we get out of this preconceived idea? Is meditation the solution ?
Soizic Michelot | I do not situate meditation as THE solution, but as one element, sincerely virtuous, among others. This way of presenting it as a miracle solution to the disorders of the world is not what I wish to communicate on this subject. It's simply about being in contact with a certain nature of things: a priori, whatever the times, life is made of a lot of changes, and a lot of suffering. I allow myself to share this excerpt from my book to answer your question :
The meditative approach does not prevent us from having social, ethical, and political positions. On the contrary, it is even an extension of practice. But indeed, there are many disturbing pitfalls here that would make meditation enter the field of bad personal development.
Citta Vritti | At the beginning of your book, you state the following: "may this book serve no purpose, or rather the nothingness". Can we make the same wish for meditation ? May it serve no purpose, or rather, the nothingness ?
Soizic Michelot | Yes, absolutely! May this book and meditation serve no purpose, in the sense of remaining in a space of gratuitousness, generosity, humanity, that is not hindered by consumerist issues. Of course, meditation serves many purposes, I am the first to live it and feel it. But may it serve this "nothingness" spoken of by Jankélévitch, whom I quote in my book: "when it is present, this je-ne-sais-quoi, this almost nothing fills us, and when it is absent, it fills us with regrets and worries. Like all very important things, the more they play a big role in our lives, the more they are impalpable, invisible". For me, meditation is this invitation to be able to remain in connection with this nothingness spoken of by Jankélévitch and which makes us fully experience our existences.
Citta Vritti | One last question: for people who want to meditate but who have difficulties or apprehensions about this practice, what would you answer ?
Soizic Michelot | I would tell them that these apprehensions are normal, and shared by all. The key is in the deculpabilization, seeing that we are all in the same boat, far from the images of smiling women in front of a sunset. Meditation is a very confronting approach, and being afraid is normal. We find ourselves in the forefront of our minds, but we learn to place an attention that is not judgmental, to establish a certain gentleness, with a gaze that "watches over" our experience, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. "Watch over", in the sense of "take care". I think it is an approach that deserves to be accompanied by a human being, it is a support that allows a real deculpabilization of the subject and a real learning.
Thank you to Soizic Michelot for the interview, and to Albin Michel Publishing for this encounter.
The images above are taken from the book "Méditer à travers l'art" by Soizic Michelot, published by Albin Michel in October 2021.
Find Soizic Michelot on Instagram : @soizic_michelot_mbsr_paris