Painting as a Portal: expressing—and ultimately befriending—your shadow side

Painting as a portal

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.

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