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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

I’ve just returned from a workshop about using art therapy to treat loss and grief. There I picked up over three dozen nifty ideas to use in the practice of healing those whom I serve. I expected to passively sit and be taught, like a good little seminar-attendee, pen purposely poised over legal pad, brain in sponge-mode. A nice way to end a hectic work week, to be paid to hang out in the Sunshine State for a day of intellectual ministering. Woot!

Silly moi, I should have anticipated that a good learning experience involves, well, experience…and that creative sorts like artists are all about the process. The pen sat largely idle and the pad was brought home mostly blank. Instead, I carried away a very personal experience of how art heals.

That’s right, she put us to work. This “Sorry, I’m limited to stick-men” kind of a gal didn’t get too far with that excuse with an art therapist. There was no hiding in that hotel conference room, and only so many times you can use the restroom/important call/refill the coffee excuses. Reluctant and reticent, I got sucked into the world of self-expression and vulnerable exposure. One cannot, after all, change others if one is not intimately familiar with the experience of changing, themselves.

I was reminded of the old joke in the field of child & family therapy…I started out with no kids and 4 theories; now I’ve got 4 kids and no theories. In order for healing to hold water, one must know something about holding water. Neither book smarts nor experience in and of themselves are ever as powerful as the combination thereof.

Our first project introduced us to the Mandala Circle, a large, outlined circle on a blank page. The instructions were to choose an oil pastel (each of us had been given a generous supply at our tables), and draw anything for 30 seconds.

As is my custom, I was already fretting about what to color, and thus I failed to hear that I would only have 30 seconds. So when the time began, I slowly and cautiously began to color around the outline on in the inside of the circle, using my favorite color (orange). I didn’t know where I was going with it, and was feeling mentally hijacked in being asked to DO something besides vegetate for the duration of the seminar, so I mindlessly and mechanically put pastel to paper.

As I began to plan ahead to where I might go with this drawing, she interrupted and stopped the time, instructing us to trade papers with another person. I was mildly miffed: not only was I NOT going to be able to plan and complete whatever it was I had not planned for, but now I had to go an mar someone else’s pretty circle with my lack of artistic talent.

Adrenaline rising, I quickly took mental note of the location of each emergency exit sign in the room, but was again interrupted by the timekeeper-lady, who summoned us to begin the next 30-second drawing. In front of me was someone else’s pretty pattern, in blue. I was terrified of ruining what they began, but I obediently put pastel again to paper, and found myself tracing their pattern with my orange. It reminded me of one of my favorite color combinations on my commute, when the sun is beginning to set and the water takes on a bright glacier-blue hue, and the sky turns into Creamsicle orange. Yum!

My trepidation began to melt into relaxation and enjoyment. Snap – she called another trade! I had no idea where my page was at this point or what it might possible look like, but now in front of me was a circle with purple and red…and at the start of the new 30 seconds, I added my orange to this one, which resembled a dream-catcher pattern. I wondered what would happen if I went out of the circle…damn, I couldn’t remember the directions! Was this allowed?

Risk-taker rogue that I am, I spat into the wind and zagged that orange pastel smack out of the circle and, like a bolt of lightning, boldly directed the line skyward to the top of the paper. There, I was happy now – I did something impulsively unique and creative, and I liked how it looked. It drew the eye away from the main, central theme and forced the mind to wander…and to wonder. Suddenly I was overcome by a quick flash of remorse, hoping the owner of the circle wouldn’t be upset that I colored outside their lines.

As I was balancing my regret and satisfaction (satisfaction won!), we were instructed to trade again. I cheerfully took it upon myself to color outside of more lines. Yes, this was ME! This was my Zorro-Z! I put to the grave my shame of henceforth being limited to stick men, and was filled with new artistic self-assurance. Rules be damned, lines were made to be crossed and my orange zags electrified and brought added interest to each circle. At least in the eye of this beholder.

After about five or six trades, we were instructed to find the original owner of the circle. When circles had been reclaimed, there was a hush in the room as we all beheld what had become of our circle. I was humbled and amazed at the journey mine had taken. What began with self-doubt, reluctant hesitation, emotional distress drowning out the directions and with only my favorite color to cling to, my circle had become the most beautiful creation which I could not have done – no-way, no-how, by myself. It could only have turned out so beautiful by my being forced to allow others to help me, to contribute to my experience and by others filling in blanks left by my limitations. Yes, this is how we become rich, and how life gets its true value.

Life is a joint effort. We are ourselves because of others.

According to research (Smitheman-Browne and Church, 1996), Mandala circles drawn at the beginning of each therapy session (whether group or individual) have been shown to reduce impulsive, anxious behaviors. In engaging in this exercise, I was able to see how I myself went from my own limitations through the change, to a redefined sense of self. As in life, it challenged me to evaluate my needs and expectations, to challenge those expectations, to compare my reality with those around me, and forced me into making choices I might not have otherwise made.

It reminded me of the anguish of those with mental health problems whose symptoms directly interfere with the basics of getting through a task or a conversation, much less an entire day, without their problems mucking things up worse for them and further reinforcing negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors in an endless, downward spiral, further perpetuating the stigma and hopelessness.

The drawing took me through feelings of artistic inadequacy, being anxious to the point of not hearing basic directions, winding up surprised and upset when asked to change (yet being forced to), finding a way to feel comfortable and define a new style all my own (using my favorite color to overcome fear and creating something I liked), reinforcing this with repetition to the point of enjoyment, and emerging on the other side of the exercise with new courage and a redefined self. Wowzers!

This also drove home how very hard it is to be on the other side of the couch, or worse, to feel as though you are alone in your plight. When we are in pain, it takes extra courage to reach out and ask for help, and even greater courage to change. Change involves risk, and risk can be scary. And the only way through scary is to trust. From a clinical perspective, I can extrapolate this exercise to apply to many different types of problems and diagnoses, but the goal for all is the same: the process of being able to trust others, begins with trusting oneself. Herein lies the greatest challenge of all, and for all.

How well do you trust yourself? And how do you regain that trust when your world gets rocked and your trust is shaken…or lost?

Postscript:

After the circles were returned to their owners and the hush had become fully pregnant, one participant raised her hand but did not wait to be called upon. “SOMEBODY DREW OUTSIDE OF MY CIRCLE,” she announced with great agitation, pointing to the bright orange zag emerging out of her otherwise-neat circle. She fully expected the scribbling scofflaw to be identified, drawn and quartered in front of everyone. The instructor smiled and looked at her picture, which the participant held high for all to see the violation for themselves. The participant sought confirmation: “We weren’t supposed to go outside the lines.” The instructor, still smiling, said, “I never said that. I was very careful to give you just general instructions. Isn’t it interesting the limitations we assume lie in the tasks we face in life? And how that may limit our ability to solve problems? Or limit our ability to guide others in solving theirs? As helpers, we must constantly think outside the box, since answers to life rarely lie within the confines of the boundaries we perceive to exist.”

Thanks, God, for having all the answers (even if we can’t see them), and for teaching us to trust.

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