We hear this all the time in the studio… a lamenting, a craving…
“… I just want my painting to be pretty! I want it to convey a sense of peace because that’s what I’m working on manifesting in my life. I want to be normal. I don’t want to feel this crap and paint the ‘dark and ugly’ stuff because that’s not what I want to affirm it in my life.”
The friction comes from the fact that, perhaps in that moment, “peace” is not what’s present. “Pretty” is not what wants to be painted. That’s what we think and hope for, but the reality is that when we’re given a paintbrush and a palette of color in a safe, supportive environment and and have total freedom without someone telling us how it’s supposed to be, often what shows up after a while is…Our SHADOW! (insert scary music here)
That’s right, all that stuff we’ve been repressing because it’s not socially acceptable or spiritually aligned, all that stuff that’s messy and shameful and hard to deal with, all that stuff that we were at one time conditioned to hide in order to please our parents or stay out of trouble at school or to “get into heaven”…all of THAT stuff begins to rise to the surface.
Why, you ask, does it rear it’s ugly head now? I believe it’s because in order 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 enough and allow spaces for what wants happen…well, let the discovery begin!
Perhaps it’s an unresolved childhood trauma, or anger we haven’t expressed toward a boss or spouse, or some shame for not living up to the expectations of our parents, or maybe grief around the hatred of our own bodies over the years and all the things we’ve done to be seen and loved. Whatever it is, it wants to be seen. It’s demanding it. It gets harder and harder to resist it. And we’re terrified. Because we’re afraid that if we let it in, it will stay. Linger forever and ever.
But this is where the paradox lies and the magic happens… Time and time again I see it–when we (perhaps reluctantly) allow ourselves to feel the feelings and explore it with paint… when we surrender and “put our head in the mouth of the demon” so to speak, asking it what is has to say or show us… inevitably, it transforms. The resistance softens and we find ourselves getting curious about what this monster looks like, and we are at the bravest spot–the most vulnerable and truthful and humble–as the emotions flow and the entire body and psyche are present to this overwhelming expression.
And then suddenly we realize after shining light on our darkest pieces and shifting our relationship to our shadowy selves, that a strange peacefulness has enveloped us. Where did that come from?!? Not a forced peace or a sugar-coated happiness, but the deep authentic joy and contentment that comes from being with what is, right as it is. You mean that peace was there waiting for me on the other side of that insurmountable experience? (Flash back to that children’s Bear Hunt song… “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it.”)
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.
I come from the spiritual self-help New Thought “woo-woo” traditions. I understand the reasons for “affirming the good”, and the power of cognitive re-programming, and the desire to want to “pray it away.” But at the same time my practice of Buddhist insight meditation has taught me the value in being present to what is, and developing a new way of relating to our experiences that involves compassion and equanimity without trying to change anything. We can’t skip over the parts of ourselves we don’t like and still be “whole.”
This is where I think process painting is a perfect marriage of these two paths. It’s the multi-colored 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 those parts, inviting them to join the banquet of belonging.
The tactile, messy quality of painting and moving with color in a pre-verbal, subconscious and intuitive way is a new (old) kind of medicine. It’s an alchemical process on a whole-being level. It happens from within out. In fact, i’m going to go so far as to say that this “healing balm” of mindfulness and creative expression is exactly what is going to bring our troubled world into balance, because let’s face it–a world plagued by war and poverty and 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, developing self-love and integration, 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.
So what is the pathway from here to happiness? I may not see the entire route, but I know that I cannot bypass the present moment to get “there”. The first step begins with this breath, with whatever is showing up. Right now. As it is. The good. The bad. The messy. Me.