Creating art can be a very healing experience. It can be quite therapeutic to take what is inside and bring it forward into some representation or manifestation in the world, and psychotherapeutic theory holds that when we make conscious that which is unconscious, we can begin to free ourselves from whatever demons lurk there. Usually this is done in a verbal exploration, but sometimes, art is used as the medium of the therapy. To paint, sculpt, write, make musical or role-play the conflicts lurking in our minds can often bring about some resolution of painful confusion, while also releasing creative and healthy archetypal energy. When we engage in artistic expression of our demons, there is, in many cases, some relief from their hold and control over us, and new paths for healthier living can open up.
While this relief and growth is usually believed to be the result of getting repressed contents of the mind into the light of consciousness, it might be speculated there is also another powerfully healing factor occurring that most psychotherapy hardly pays any attention to at all. It is also possible that if brought to the level of consciousness and integrated, this event, which has nothing to do with the contents of the mind, may be an even more effective and lasting path to healthy and integrated living than the realization of insights into a person’s life story revealed under analysis. This event is an aspect of the act of art itself.
As important as the calling forth and claiming of personal experience may be, both in analytical psychology and the making of art, it can be speculated that these experiences have a bit of a backfire to them, in that the person’s sense of identity with the contents of the mind, personal history and perspective may be strengthened, and those contents, while now reinterpreted, remain a kind of prison for the person. There is a perspective, however, that believes that true healing comes about when the person no longer looks for identity in mental activity, past events or personal affiliations, but rather in that which is in contact with the present moment with absolute clarity and authenticity. It is about being in touch, in the literal sense.
Buddhist psychology, unlike most Western psychologies, recognizes there is a dimension of intelligence deeper than the mind of thoughts and emotions. We can apply words to this dimension such as Being, Self, or even Soul, but this dimension is vitally deeper than the realm of words, it is pure experience and it is direct contact with the world through the senses and intuition. This is the dimension that witnesses in awareness the mental and physical activity of our lives that is shaped by conditioned experience, which is the very source of the neuroses, while this witnessing dimension is completely unconditioned, and therefore, free of neuroses. When Zen Buddhism asks, “As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, who is it that is aware?” it is this dimension of awareness, of Being, that Buddhism is pointing to as your true or original self. This koan is guiding us to what is the healthiest, wisest and most creative in us and the purpose of Zen teaching and practice is to awaken this dimension, best named, simply, awareness.
Psychotherapy can summon this dimension, and in its best moments, does, but usually by pure accident. A skilled and sincere therapist, using whatever technique, can create an experience of heightened awareness, authenticity and presence for a client when summoning forward their story that can result in an experience that brings healing. While summoning the story and giving new insight into it is very helpful, it is not, however, the summoning of the story that does the greatest healing. Rather, it is in the person’s opening to the possibility for real authenticity in the moment, and the connection with this deeper dimension of awareness in a profoundly shared moment with the therapist in heightened presence, that brings the greatest healing. It creates, in a sense, a trust in Being, which is what is lacking in the neurotic mind. If this experience of authenticity, presence and heightened awareness can be recognized for what it is and how it comes about, an entirely healthy dimension of the person can begin to grow and be integrated.
Similarly, artistic expression, and to a lesser degree, being an audience to art, is about letting go of the realm of the ego as the centerpiece of the mind and coming into direct and authentic contact in heightened awareness with the present moment as art is created or experienced. Small-self-consciousness is lost in the purity, the bigness of the experience. True art comes from the deeper self-in-presence, perhaps using thoughts and emotions as subjects of creative expression, but now blended and guided by the deeper intelligence that is whole and one with the moment. This phenomenon of oneness is sometimes referred to as “flow,” and in this flow, the contents of the mind are balanced and mastered, a quite different kind of consciousness than when, as in day-to-day experience, the mind-contents are master of us, and there is no flow, when we are separated from the oneness of the moment, lost, caught in the matrix of ideas about the world and our place in it.
This experience of artistic flow is always clear and unconflicted, and it is happening in an integration of the senses and intuition with our thoughts and emotions, in the present moment. This in-the-moment expression that connects intuitive and archetypal experience with whatever medium is being engaged creates a temporary clarity and sanity for the artist or the witness to art, and as any artist will tell you, it is when in the action of their art-form that they feel the sanest.
Years ago, when I was first learning the craft of psychotherapy, I studied under a brilliant Gestalt therapist, who was also a professional improvisational actor. He would ask, “Is your life good theater or bad melodrama?” He taught his students how to access the focused expressed contact with the present moment that makes for good theater into everyday life. He taught how to express oneself creatively, trusting intuition and increased sensory subtlety, gaining insight along the way about how old habits hold us stuck in ineffective ways of being in the world. Through a blending of Gestalt and acting techniques, he gave his students the tools to change old habits to healthier ways of expression in the world. This is great therapy, and, of course, it is good theater.
I often find that artists can make excellent subjects for healing work because when I tell them to consider living their life in the way they create their art, that is, in subtle, skillful direct contact with the physical world, in the present moment, trusting their intuitive sense, there is often a kind of “Ah-ha” experience. To a painter, I say, “be in touch with the world the way you are in touch with the canvas and the paints.” To a musician, I say, “be in touch with the world the way you are with your instrument.” This instruction works because it’s not hard to understand that living with that kind of immediacy, focus and presence would be far less neurotic, self-absorbed, anxious or depressed than the way they had been living, caught-up in thoughts and reactive emotions that have very little to do with the vibrancy of the real here-and-now.
This kind of therapy teaches people to, in the words of the great originator of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, “get out of your head, and come to your senses,” and he meant that literally. The senses exist in the present moment in clarity, but clarity is lost when the realm of thoughts and emotions distract us from real presence. Our usual relationship with the senses is superficial and distorted by projecting our ideas about what is going on rather than opening us to what really is going on. However, when we train ourselves in subtle, undistracted presence so that the senses can fully drink in the moment as-it-is, an amazing dimension of intuitive insight opens, full of creativity and wisdom, just as happens for an artist in a moment of genius. Awareness flourishes.
The challenge is that it’s just not so easy to access this flowing awareness outside the specific context of creativity, since the habit patterns of egoic mind are so persistent and subtly insidious. It therefore makes sense to turn life into creative context, applying the insight that just as to learn an art form takes a great deal of practice and instruction, to learn life-as-an-art-form takes just as much work, that is, application of deliberately directed awareness into the moment, technique and medium.
Overcoming the resistance of years of conditioned habit and neurotic identity is a truly great challenge, but for those who will do the “practice,” the pay-off is even greater and more fulfilling than a perfect arpeggio or brush stroke. Life can be the canvas, the instrument, the stage, the page where a dull, chaotic or overblown story becomes impeccable poetry, and the result will be an expanding experience of flowing sanity, clarity and creativity as presence in the world becomes your home, and art your way of life.