Art museums tend to be reflective places. But every week at the Phoenix Art Museum, there’s an extra air of introspection. For the last four years, individuals have gathered, rain or shine, to participate in free, half-hour mindfulness classes on behalf of a collaboration between Hospice of the Valley and the museum. 


Gillian Hamilton, M.D., Ph.D., administrative medical director of Hospice of the Valley, first developed a mindfulness program to help the agency’s staff and caregivers navigate the stresses of caring for the dying. 


“I was sitting with nurses and social workers, and realized they were taking their work home at night and couldn’t sleep. So, I went to a retreat about mindfulness and thought, ‘This is awesome.’ I recruited some colleagues and we became certified so we could help our staff deal with death and dying every day, be able to do that with equanimity and not leave, burn out,” explains Hamilton. “But mostly to be able to be present with others’ pain, but not take it on.” 


Eventually, the class evolved into a public format where the community was invited to join mindfulness sessions at the Phoenix Art Museum after Hamilton read about a similar program at the Los Angeles Art Museum. 


Mindfulness is being in the present moment, says Hamilton, who facilitates the weekly museum sessions. It’s proven to relieve anxiety, depression, pain and stress, and actually change the way you feel, think, work and play by opening new pathways in the brain. “Mindfulness also is known to lower blood pressure, improve breathing and the immune system, and reduces chronic pain by one-third with long-term use,” she says. 

“Any time you stop the endless runway we’re on, even for an instant, it makes a difference.” – Gillian Hamilton, M.D., Ph.D., Administrative Medical Director, Hospice of the Valley

Typically, about 25 people from all walks of life gather each week for the mindfulness class, sitting quietly in a circle as Hamilton reminds them to breath and stay in the moment, regardless of outside distractions such as museum goers passing by or birds chirping. 


The goal of mindfulness, she says, is not to block out what’s happening around you, but instead be in tune with your breath, body, thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether positive or negative. 


“A lot of systems teach you to distract, avoid and try not go there, or to analyze. Mindfulness accepts whatever is present, when you fully accept an area of distress or pain, it transforms with time. So, accepting, accepting, accepting, not pushing away. It doesn’t make sense at first, but it works. It’s about being aware of the tiny, slippery spot of now,” she says. 



The classes, which have attracted 3,500 visitors since they began, are held in the Dorrance Sculpture Garden unless there is inclement weather, when they are moved inside. 


Skeptics might wonder how a half-hour of mindfulness can change anything, but according to Hamilton, it has benefits, even if you practice it momentarily. 


“The class encourages people to do it in between, but you take what you can get. Any time you stop the endless runway we’re on, even for an instant, it makes a difference. If you could do it once a day, for one minute, great. You don’t have to sit. You could just walk to your car and be aware of your emotions, that will change things,” she says. 


Sally Mulready of Phoenix, a retired marriage and family therapist, attends classes regularly with her partner and feels the experience has heightened her life in many ways. 


“I’m attracted to it because I love the practice of mindfulness, but also it brings me to the museum, because when I retired, I wanted to be more involved in the art world. The marriage of having mindfulness here is perfect for me. It grounds me to the practice, to the museum, the garden and community of people. It feels like home,” she says. “Plus, the weekly routine of mindfulness reminds me to use the technique during the week.” 


The weekly, half-hour sessions also have inspired the Slow Art and Mindfulness class, which blends guided mindfulness practice with a deeper reflection of an individual artwork once a month at the museum. 


“We are so grateful for our partnership with Hospice of the Valley, which has made it possible for us to host more than 150 sessions of mindfulness for our community over the past four years,” says Kaela Sáenz Oriti, the Gerry Grout Education Director. 


“Our mindfulness sessions provide an often-welcomed escape from the hustle and bustle of every day, giving participants the chance to slow down and heighten their awareness in an inspiring and creative environment. We remain committed to offering programs like mindfulness that encourage our community to interact with the museum in a way that’s meaningful to them.”



By Sally J. Clasen

Photo: Mark Lipczynski