Hello Beautiful Creatives!
For the next couple of weeks Sarah and I would like to give you a taste of what happens in our collaborative offering, The Walkabout – an online journey of wandering back to yourself – found right HERE.
In The Walkabout, Sarah and I write to each other about our lives and our process and include writing prompts and creative nudges for those walking the journey with us. So, for the next two weeks, we’d like to give you a peek into our sacred journey and share with you what we’ve been writing about. (This week is my letter to Sarah and next week we’ll post her response.)
PART I – Grief, Masterpiece Theatre and Staying The Course
Good Morning Sarah,
Well, in keeping with last month’s feelings about the fragility of life and meeting life at my own pace….the Universe seems to be holding my toes to the sacred fire and has sent me a pop quiz.
Thursday I had to say good-bye to one of my furry family members. My boy cat, Tilak was part of the”holy trinity” of animal companions that has helped to keep me sane and grounded for the past 17 years. The hole he has left in my heart is deep and I am grieving.
It is amazing the love I have for animals. They are so full of life and LOVE and present moment awareness……and when they leave me, I truly miss their presence.
Something struck me hard on Thursday at the Vet’s, as I held him for the last time. I realized I had been in similar positions with many other feline companions. But this one was different. THIS time, I was really there. I was there and awake and F**K, it was so freaking painful. I wasn’t checking out and numb to it. I was feeling every beat of his heart and his breath and smelling his fur (he always smelled really good – like graham crackers) and when they injected him with the medicine to end his suffering, I felt all of it stop as he gracefully collapsed in my arms. WOW.
So, it’s been a hard few days. I almost forgot to write you today. I am grieving. And I am okay.
I am also learning what I need in times like this. What my heart needs and what my body needs (with all of what ails her right now). It would seem I need to greatly calm my brain. I realize when I am fully present to my feelings they will pass through pretty quickly. It’s when my stories and memories kick in that keeps me in pain.
So, I have been consciously distracting myself. My brain does her brain thing and plays my memories of Tilak like a slide show. Sometimes I give in and start watching (here come the tears). And other times, I feel the pain in my heart, I paint it or scribble it, and I move on to what is next.
ALSO….(you guessed it) Netflix. HA. On Thursday when I literally could not stop crying, I finally had to get some relief and so I consciously numbed out to a long PBS Masterpiece Theater series, set in 1700’s England. Not too emotional. Not too anything except beautiful accents and scenery. AHHHH. Just what I needed. I stopped crying and was able to make myself a protein shake!
I feel like these moments, right here, when the shit hits the fan (and there is always shit and some sort of fan) is why we do this work.
Not only do I live in a more present and engaged way (which yes is sometimes much more painful) I know myself SO much better now. What do I NEED to heal? WHAT truly nourishes me? Questions only I can answer and I feel like I am doing a pretty good job of it! (please remind me of this when I am feeling otherwise, as I know I will.
Thank you again Sarah.
I love You
I’ve had the most incredible painting experience over the last few weeks and I wanted to share it with you, so I am pasting this sweet little post from my own blog page over here. Love, Steph
Almost as long as I can remember I have fought with my body and how she looks. As a child, I was pudgy and had buck teeth. By third grade, I had glasses. OH and let’s not forget the curly red hair.
Even now certain memories still stick out in my mind:
In grade school – at my first concert – the girls I was with all got to take turns riding the shoulders of the mom who chaperoned us. When it got to be my turn, she tried lifting me and couldn’t and then let me know I was too heavy – this was the first time I really felt shame about my body.
Then there was the time in high school, with my first real boyfriend. He broke up with me because “I was too big for him.” He actually told me he wanted someone with a better body (I was a size 7). I have to give him kudos for his honesty.
I can still recall the reactive diet that followed. I remember going to a convenience store for lunch and eating a single sized bag of chips and a diet soda. I can remember how good it felt to deprive my body of things. She was getting me into this trouble….and she would pay. I would show her who was boss…..I WAS IN CONTROL.
This cycle of excessive dieting allowed me relief and was my constant companion for decades. I’d lose some weight, feel in control and then start eating whatever I wanted again – until I was triggered in some way.
Throughout the years, I’ve also had my teeth fixed, started wearing contacts and learned to straighten my hair.- adopting even more ways to fit in, be pretty and keep the possibility of shame and embarrassment to a minimum .
Thankfully, things have slowly been changing. I’ve been on a mission to figure out what foods are best for my body and will help me to manage my arthritis and pain. I’ve started to see food as something with healing properties, not as a vehicle for punishment or reward. I am learning to listen to my body, and ask her what she wants. And I am learning to be okay with my body size. I’ve also realized how much energy I have spent trying to keep an image of myself together that isn’t real.
Right now, I am dealing with chronic pain, a slowing metabolism and the inability to exercise as I would like. ALL I care about it feeling as good as possible and living as much of my life as fully as I can. I know I have gained weight and I know I am doing the best that I can. This is why, when I received an automated email from my last doctor’s visit letting me know that my BMI was now in the overweight status, I didn’t totally freak out.
Don’t get me wrong, I tried…. for a few minutes. I started thinking about drastic diets and how to lose some weight fast. I started to think about what a bad deal this all was…..and then I stopped. I just STOPPED. I had painting class that morning, and I focused on that. I started painting my body, as realistically as I could. I painted my fat folds, my uneven teeth, my thick black glasses and my curly hair up in a bun on top of my head.
As I painted, I fell totally in love and adorned the plump little creature with flowering vines. Her face revealed a relieved and enlightened grin and that widened my heart even more.When I had negative thoughts in my head, I allowed them to show up on the page as well. And when the painting was finished, I felt a little sad. The experience I had with her, was deeply personal and transforming and it was hard to say good-bye.
I knew when I was finished I would have to share this story. She is beautiful. I am beautiful. I see that now. This painting process is a powerful agent of change and is allowing me to become more of myself every day. It feels less scary to get real. I don’t find myself needing quite as many layers of protection around me…and I feel like I am living my truth, from the inside out.
She wants peace. She wants to manifest it both in her life and in the painting in front of her. But only the good stuff. The light stuff. She hates darkness. Yet her painting feels contrived and her annoyance with it grows. A sense of frustration begins to simmer inside her.
Paintbrush in hand, she makes another yellow stroke on the paper, creating what appears to be a sun shining down upon a field. “I can’t get this to look right. I want it to shine!” she says, tensing as she again tries to manufacture lightness. Her hand stiffens. “I know. I’ll add some pretty flowers to the field instead.” Dipping her brush into the lavender in her pastel-colored palette, she adds little flowery dots to her painting—but it feels forced. Her tension builds.
Thoughts of a disagreement she had the previous week with her boss bubble to the surface, but she squelches the feelings. I really don’t want to go there right now, she tells herself, trying to push the memory out of her head. I just want to paint this scene. It’s too late. The irritation won’t dissipate. Anger erupts like an internal fire. “I want a peaceful landscape!” she screams suddenly, jabbing the brush into the paper. “I am a peaceful person!” She lets loose as paint from the palette splatters onto her landscape, “ruining” the tightly controlled image. The colors drip and mix together in a bloody rainbow mess.
Devastated, she surrenders to defeat and sobs. Tears flow and anger rages, with floodgates bursting open. In that opening, a switch is flipped and she finds herself reaching for more colors to smear onto the paper, feeling a strange rush of energy through her entire body. Wait a minute, she thinks. That felt pretty good.
She rides that energetic wave, courageously smudging on more paint—even adding a second sheet of paper to extend her painting and make it larger. She creates a bold swipe with brilliant red. Then she does the same with some darker colors. Then black—lots of black. She can’t get enough of the black in a big swirling motion. She no longer even cares about the painting. She is transfixed.
What was once a stiff landscape has shifted into a cross section of rich, fertile black soil and a seed-like pod, accented by random colors and the swirling energy of the sun above. The added darkness of the black brings contrast to the rays of sunlight, making them shine even brighter. The painting’s raw power and honesty is palpable—and strangely breathtaking. It’s not at all what she wanted to paint, but it feels right. She exhales deeply, and she feels peace.
Meet the Shadow
Can you recall a time when you wanted to show up a certain way and fought hard with the present-moment reality of your experience to stay in control? Perhaps you identify as a “spiritual” person who doesn’t give pause to negative feelings such as sadness, rage, fear, or shame.
In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the unknown dark side of the personality. It’s all of the things we’ve been repressing because it’s not socially acceptable or spiritually aligned, all the stuff that is messy and hard to deal with. These unwanted qualities are so deeply buried and so far removed that we often don’t even think of those aspects as “us”—we think they’re the things we despise in other people. They belong to the “unspiritual” people, the ones who are asleep, the difficult ones, the idiots, the enemies … the others, but not us.
Perhaps it shows up as an unresolved childhood trauma, anger we haven’t expressed toward a boss or spouse, shame for not living up to the expectations of our parents, or maybe grief around the hatred we’ve harbored throughout the years for our own bodies. Whatever the stuffed and ignored feeling is, it wants to be seen—and deeply felt. It demands this, and resisting those demands gets harder and harder to resist. We’re often terrified to let the shadow in, imagining that it will stay forever.
But here in this paradox is where the magic begins. When we allow ourselves to feel the difficult feelings and explore them with paint, surrendering to “the demon” and asking it what it has to say, this demon inevitably transforms. Our resistance softens and we find ourselves getting curious about what this monster looks like. This is a brave act indeed, as emotions flow and the entire body and psyche are present to this vulnerable yet honest expression.
Suddenly, after shining light on our darkest places and shifting our relationship to our shadowy self, a strange peacefulness has enveloped us. This is not a forced peace or a sugarcoated happiness, but the deep authentic joy and contentment that comes from being with what is, right as it is. In fact, resisting and holding down what we don’t want to feel is what causes it to linger. But letting it pass through without attaching to it with elaborate stories and identification brings us to the joy on the other side.
Reclaiming Our Power
The shadow contains much of our vitality, creativity, and power. These important forces are not available to us when we’re using our life-force energy to constantly hold something back. Psychotherapist and author Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D., puts it this way in his book Spiritual Bypassing (North Atlantic Books, 2010): “Real shadow work not only breaks us down but also breaks us open, turning frozen yesterday into fluid now.”
To be whole, our psyches and souls need integration. It’s part of the healing process and a necessary step in our evolution. When we slow down enough and quiet our minds to allow space for what wants to happen, the results may surprise us. We might find more of ourselves.
I appreciate New Thought teachings and tools such as affirming the good and changing our thoughts to change our life. At the same time, my practice of Buddhist insight meditation has taught me the value in being present to what is, along with developing a new way of relating to our experiences that involves compassion and equanimity for them. We can’t skip over the parts of ourselves we don’t like and still be whole. This is where process painting becomes a perfect marriage of these two paths. It’s the multicolored thread that weaves together the where-we-want-to-be’s and the where-we-are-right-now’s. It’s the excavation tool that uncovers the buried and forgotten parts, as well as the flashlight that shines compassion and curiosity on them, inviting those parts to join the banquet of belonging.
The tactile, messy quality of painting and moving with color in a preverbal, subconscious, and intuitive way is actually medicine. It’s an alchemical process on a whole-being level that happens from within out. This healing balm of mindfulness and creative expression may be exactly what we need to bring balance to our troubled times. A world plagued by war, poverty, hunger, and inequality is also a reflection of those qualities within each one of us. When I shine light on my own shadow and do my own work, I am at the same time taking a revolutionary step toward healing on a global scale. I am owning it and transforming it on a personal level, one moment at a time, and the effects ripple outward.
Painting as a Tool
Art is usually created with some intended outcome, whether it’s to sell, to impress, or to bring us peace. Process painting is different. It’s exactly like it sounds. The goal is the process, not the end product. This technique simply uses the medium of paint and intuitive expression as a tool for mindfulness and self-discovery.
Process painting involves the whole being—the body, the mind, and the emotions. When we paint, we’re showing up to whatever is arising in the moment, exploring it in color and form. Digging in the dirt, so to speak. Getting messy. It’s not the mind acting as an intermediary, forming a concept or interpretation of our experience and then recreating it in color. Rather, it’s the direct and immediate experience of what arises as we paint, as we tune in to our most innate instincts and paint with immediacy—even if we don’t have a clue about what we’re doing. When we create in this way, something magical begins to happen: Our whole being is restored to equilibrium through the expression of whatever we were previously holding back. Without rules or expectations, we allow the stream of consciousness to flow and express itself. Every painting becomes a mystery revealed, a stone overturned.
In a workshop setting, each person is supported exactly where they are—as they are—while embarking on this journey of self-discovery using the tools of tempera paint, brushes, paper, and present-moment awareness. One does not need to be an artist to use painting in a transformational way. Creativity is part of our very nature.
Creative blocks happen only when we obstruct the natural flow of experience, either through judgment or by the refusal to feel something. Living in the creative flow requires a willingness to see and feel whatever arises in each passing moment, with awareness and acceptance—not a passive acceptance where we resign to being victims of our experience. Rather, it’s an acceptance of whatever we’re feeling on the inside. Only then can the outside begin to change.
Process painting brings us to the honest and pure truth of the present moment, beyond time and space. It’s a portal that allows us to touch the unnamed truth of our being. That truth is paradoxical. We are both animal and we are divine. We are darkness and light, yin and yang. We are raw, unbridled energy incarnate. Instinctual drives embodied in flesh. We are all of these things, plus those things we have not yet tapped. We are life itself expressing creatively, ever-curious of what the next brushstroke will reveal.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Unity Magazine; www.unitymagazine.org.
The upshot for me, about activism, is this. I don’t want to march or go to town halls or make phone calls or campaign for someone. The activism I’m interested in is how to take the work I do in the studio, out into the world. How to meet each individual I come into contact with …the bank teller, the grocery store guy, the driver in the car ahead of me, etc… with the same awareness I meet myself with in the studio?
Can I attend to the space in between me and the other, with the same presence and awareness I attend to my in -between space in me, when I’m in the studio. When I’m writing, scribbling, making images and listening, with an open heart, for and to the me-ness of me?
This to me is activism. The kind that starts at home, where I am, with myself. Then taken out into my neighborhood and daily life. It’s invisible. But it’s felt by me and the others I meet. Maybe not nameable, ever, but felt.
I must admit this kind of activism scares the shit out of me; makes me Feel. Way. Too. Vulnerable. And, as an avoidant, I want to go more underground and away from those strong feelings. So I do. I do the internal inside invisible work. What I’m beginning to understand is that I also need to let it shine forth into the world…not just hold it for myself. The big question is: Can I be okay with and trust what I have to offer…even if it is invisible?
Maybe, just maybe, invisibility is not an obstacle but my super power. It is an offering to the person I’m engaged with; being real and grounded and present. Knowing it is not any of my business whether they receive the offering or not. And knowing that my well-being, my sense of myself, is not dependent on them getting it.
Well, that would be fucking huge, wouldn’t it?
“Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by action alone.” —Thomas Carlyle
From the outside it might appear that I have my stuff together as an artist. I have a semi-cohesive body of work, I have patrons who support me, I have a studio in which to create. But despite all these things and 20+ years of painting, the fact of the matter is when I step into the studio I sometimes find myself face-to-face with a special kind of monster: Crippling Doubt. We’ve gotten to know each other over the years so it’s not so much a monster anymore but more like a scared, unyielding, type-A tyrannical dude who tries to rob me of my potentially creative moment. Doubt thinks it knows something of grave importance. And that is, that I cannot (and must not) paint. Period.
Although I’ve objectified it, the voice of self-doubt comes through my own voice, my own mind. Internally, it can feel like constipation of the creative flow while in the mind shows up as a multitude of thoughts sounding something like this:
“Crap, these aren’t good enough.”
“I’m not a real artist.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“I’m a phony.”
“I have nothing interesting or new to say.”
“Save yourself. Don’t even try.”
And when I give in and listen to those thoughts, I’ll do ANYTHING except paint. That’s when I spend hours organizing my studio or being glued to social media. Or sitting frozen looking at my blank canvases and half-finished paintings. The power of doubt is so great that all these years later it’s still here…No matter how many paintings I complete, no matter how many shows I have or gallery contracts I sign, it still rears its ugly head. It might take a long hiatus (and I might feel liberated by its absence) but at some unexpected time it returns. Sometimes it’s after a vacation or when I’ve been away from the studio. It can even show up at strange occasions, such as after just landing a gallery contract or making a sale, or if I have a big art show right around the corner.
Doubt’s arrival doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why does it keep showing up?
The Misguided Protector
Believe it or not, the self-doubt shows up as an internal protection system–albeit a misguided one. When there is doubt, there is usually a fear that we will be unsuccessful in achieving whatever goal we are setting out to accomplish (If I look closely, I’ll find that I had some kind of expectation around my painting and how it would be received.) And when the mind senses any kind of threat to our ego, it will do what it can to protect us–even if it means keeping us from creating. However, to my knowledge no one has ever died from painting. Someone might have received a bruised ego from harsh criticism, but painting (and even the critiques that can come from painting) absolutely cannot harm you.
Doubt can be like an overbearing parent who would rather that you be safe than to live life. It would rather things be predictable (and boring.) It wants a direct path from point A to point B. But that’s not how creativity works. Creativity is messy and unpredictable and meanders in circles, hits apparent dead-ends, and then opens a secret passage to another level. It has little to nothing to do with the logical mind and requires a relinquishment of control. It can be a journey of highs and lows that unfolds in its own timeframe. To the ego, it can be risky business because essentially it is a process that is beyond the ego’s control. And yet, it’s what our souls long for in a deep way: To create.
I have found just one antidote to creative self-doubt: Just do it. Pick up a paintbrush and make a mark. Find somewhere to start. If you’re frozen in fear, find an entry point into a painting you’ve already started or if it’s a blank canvas or page just make a freakin’ scribble. And for God’s sake, keep moving. Let the doubt be there, but keep making your marks anyway. If you keep going, I can almost guarantee it will dissipate. It might come back later (or turn into judgments about what you’re doing) but that’s when you apply the remedy once more–keep creating. And creating…and creating.
Because once you’re in the flow of painting, you’ve proven the doubt wrong.
It’s when we give in to doubt and ditch the painting or the studio time that we lose. We succumb to the fear and end up with the regret of knowing there was something else we wanted to do but couldn’t. And we’re stuck with the lack of creative fulfillment. Therefore, do whatever you need to do…set a timer and take an hour or two to create regardless of the voice of doubt. In spite of it. If you need to, paint the doubt itself. If the voice had a body, what would it look like? Would it be the image of a past teacher or parent? It is human? Would it be an animal? Paint it, or paint your emotions, or paint ANYTHING. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blob or a scribble or what–just make sure you don’t give in to the voice of doubt. You can even say “Thank you, Crippling Doubt, for your suggestions…but I’m going to keep painting.” Because, like a storm, it will pass. It always does.
Don’t let doubt take your joy or steal your creative fire. You might feel burned out and jaded and just plain exhausted before the next wave of creative grace kicks in. But kick in it will. Stick with yourself. Stand up for yourself. Tell doubt to f*** off, and show it what you’ve got. Creativity is your birthright. You deserve to create. So just do it.