Art as Medicine

Art as MedicineCreating a Therapy of the Imagination, by Shaun McNiff, Boston & London: Shambhala, 1992.

Review and Quotes

The soul is a very perfect judge of her own motions, if your mind does not dictate other. … The soul’s deepest will is to preserve its own integrity, against the mind and the whole mass of disintegrating focus.

Soul sympathizes with soul.

—D.H. Lawrence (1923)

Review

Internationally renowned art therapist Shaun McNiff outlines in this fascinating book his approach to art theory which I found to be both holistic and highly original. The author sees art therapy as a process in which the soul reveals itself to the inquiring individual and the group surrounding him or her. In fact, while he admits that art therapy can exceptionally be a solitary process, the author favors the group therapy approach as it is conducive to soul revelation and spiritual growth.

There are several methods the author discusses in his book, and that are the work processes his therapy seminars are composed of. It is first of all making paintings, then to respond to them by meditative dialogue, and finally orchestrating them in a shamanic setting where the body takes over the meditative talk, and finally dreaming about them, and continue the art process by considering to weave the dream images into the fabric of the entire process.

Finally, the entire last part of the book entitled ‘Demonstration’ is devoted to dialoguing directly with the images, letting visual elements talk to the painter or to each other, including houses, objects, animals, and humans. This part of the book may be difficult to read and digest for some as it requires a high level of imagination to follow these dialogues.

The book is written in fluent style and contains a wealth of hints to ‘real’ art and fine details from the lives of famous artists; it also shows the imbeddedness of the therapeutic approach in psychoanalysis. I have been greatly enriched by the book and would recommend it to each and everybody who seeks to expand his or her soul life, and make their lives richer and more meaningful overall.

Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction

Part One — Context

Simple Beginnings
Shamanic Continuities
Attunement to the Archetypal
A Link to the ‘Art World’
Psyche’s Movement
Imaginal Realism
Artist and Angel
The Daimonic Tradition

Part Two — Dialoguing and Other Methods

Loquent Meditations
Creation Stories
Responding
Talking with Images
The Value of Dialogue
Performing
Dreaming

Part Three — Demonstration

Image Dialogues

Bibliography
Index

Introduction

Whenever illness is associated with loss of soul, the arts emerge spontaneously as remedies, soul medicine. Pairing art and medicine stimulates the creation of a discipline through which imagination treats itself and recycles its vitality back to daily living.

My perspective on medicine is artistic. I will not make bioenergetic assessments of pulse beats altered by meditations on images.

Although the chemistry of the body no doubt changes as a result of artistic expression and reflection, the purpose of this book is to engage them as modes of psychological inquiry. Rather than attempting to explain the artistic emanations of soul, our psychology desires to activate and move soul by striving to speak its own language.

The methods and philosophy in this book are based on principles of dialogue and interplay. Creation is interactive, and all of the players are instrumentalities of soul’s instinctual process of ministering to itself. Conflict as well as affection propel the process.

Art as medicine does not restrict its interactions to human relationships. Concentration on the ‘other’ ensouls the world, and paintings are ensouled objects or beings who guide, watch, and accompany their makers and the people who live with them. Their medicine is established by this ‘otherness,’ which enables them to influence people who open themselves to receiving help from another.

I intend this to be a practical book, based on life experiences, but not limited to descriptions of those experiences. The book is itself a ‘doing,’ an action in which soul demonstrates how it moves within the individualized yet archetypal context of a person’s life. The word soul suggests the essential nature of persons and other phenomena. It is characterized by individuality, the aesthetic quality, or aura, that distinguishes one thing from another. It is also an inner movement or stirring, the force of creative animation and vitality. Soul is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with psyche, daimon, and other words that appear frequently in this text. All of these words emanate from a common mystery. Their purpose is poetic rather than explanatory, and through them the soul experiences itself more deeply. Throughout the book I will use the word image and generally refer to the visual images of dreams and pictures, but movements, sounds, poetry, enactments, and ideas are not excluded from my sense of the word.

As soon as a painting is made, or a dream remembered, the images that constitute their being are experienced as wholly other. This autonomous life of the image is the foundation of the revolutionary and pragmatic treatment of our psychic diseases. We see the dogs, automobiles, houses, and rivers in our paintings and reams as parts of ourselves, confirming the egocentric madness of our reality. Everything is reduced to the perspective of the experiencing ‘I.’

It is through others that we discover who we are. When we learn how to step aside and watch ourselves, the other becomes an agent of transformation. Dialoguing with images is a method for expanding ego’s singular vision. In opening to others, we do not have to give away our place within the interaction. Others have an experience of us that may be quite different from our experience of ourselves. All of these perspectives are elements in the psychic stew. Reality is an ever-changing interplay and never a single, fixed position.

The dialogue between an artistic and a painting is rarely limited to ‘twofold’ communication. Many figures within the painting and the artist enter these conversations. It becomes increasingly clear that the first-person perspective of the artist, the ‘I’ who is speaking, is composed of various voices. On entering the world of the painting, we become aware of the many who speak through us, not just the figures in the pictures, but also the varied aspects of our thought. The articulation of these diverse ‘persons’ is yet another aspect of image dialogue.

Virtually every person who uses art in psychotherapy believes in the ability of the image to expand communication and offer insight outside the scope of the reasoning mind. However, there are sharp distinctions in how we treat pictures once they appear. These attitudes range from approaching them as graphic signs for evaluating the mental conditions of artists, to greeting them as angels who come to offer assistance.

I view the making of art as a medicine that proceeds through different phases of creation and reflection. Although therapists and other people involved in this process make their contributions as guides and witnesses, the medicinal agent is art itself, which releases and contains psyche’s therapeutic forces. The medicine offered by meditation on art is generally an infusion of imagination and awareness rather than a specific answer. ‘Messages’ may ultimately be less significant than the engagement of images. Rather than understanding the ‘meaning’ of the dreamer’s pleasurable slide down a long pole into the darkness, we enjoy the slide and hold on to the image.

Yet artistic images encourage us to look at them and reflect upon their natures, both physical and psychological. Interpretation enters the world of the image and responds to its nature. Rather than labeling pictures from our frames of reference, we meditate on them, tell stories about how we created them, speak to them, listen to what they have to say, dramatize them through our bodily movement, and dream about them. All of these methods are dedicated to the ongoing release of art’s expressive medicine. Analysis and reason make many contributions to our meditations, but they do not dominate.

Interpretative dialogue offers artists a psychology that resonates with the shaping of images. Although our emphasis here is on the personal and intimate dialogue between individual painters and their pictures, the same principles can be applied to ‘public’ art. Inner dialogue and meditation enable a person to establish a private relationship with any art object. This mode of interpretation can be likened to Henry Corbin’s vision of ‘creative prayer’ as an ‘intimate dialogue between two beings who depend on one another and whose interaction leads to ‘new creations.’

Since very aspect of art contributes to its medicine, we do not assume that some expressions heal and others do not. Negative and disturbing images are vial stimulants for healing in that the toxin is the antitoxin. Art’s medicine trusts spontaneous expression and avoids prescriptions—bright colors to cure depression, heroic figures to conquer fear, good energies to overwhelm bad. The grotesqueness of Bosch’s underworld is welcomed together with the serenity of Monet’s water lilies. Creative expression of the soul’s aberrations gives them the opportunity to affirm rather than threaten life.

Paradoxically, it is the particulars of ordinary life that open to archetypcal existence. The only way to soul’s authentic and firsthand movement is through the medium of our most personal materials endowed with archetypal significance. The fact that in this book I use my own paintings and demonstrative interpretative dialogue may strike some readers as a contradiction to my admonition against egoism. My objective, though, is the dmonstration of a method of relating to images that will help reshape our relationship to art in and out of therapy. It is the life of imagination that I hope to convey and not the details of the artist’s life.

Shaun McNiff
Shaun McNiff

Although I have published many dialogues with other people in which we work with their art, I am not focusing on that aspect here. I want to show how an artist dialogues with his own pictures and how the many figures of imagination speak through the process. Direct engagement of images will, I hope, be instructive for therapists interested in methods that they can use with their patients. My focus here is on the engagement of the ‘persons’ of the image. As Jung suggests, a better understanding of inner processes will benefit what we do in the ‘outer’ world of therapeutic practice.

In using my own pictures, I can take risks, speak freely, and publish the contents of intimate dialogue. I do not want to use another person’s private expression to elucidate my methods. And no doubt my commitment to the ethics of how we use images in therapy and psychology shapes my methods. Only the total involvement of ‘expert’ interpreters in every phase of the artistic process will protect images and artists from those who claim authority in a realm they never visit. Taking on the role of helper demands a continuous examination of how I am living the process I encourage in others.

The provision of medicine for the body and soul is one of art’s many functions. Other aspects in art, and especially its importance as a commodity and its role as an indicator of ephemeral tastes, have dominated our culture and alienated us from the healing muses. Art itself be in need of treatment, and there is no stronger and more reliable remedy than its eternal function as articulator of the soul’s uncensored purpose. This enduring role is performed by radically personal, risky, sometimes offensive, and intimate art works that embrace psychic spontaneity—rather than market planning or political approval—as the basis of creation. Artists as well as people in therapy ask for this medicine, and art is ready to respond when we establish the context of treatment. For over two decades my work has responded to this calling, and I see clearly that the fulfillment of the vision demands the dissolution of boundaries between the communities of the arts and healing. In those rare moments when the best resources of both are gathered in a shared commitment, we experience a satisfaction achieved only by the realization of ‘the soul’s deepest will.’

This book begins with a description of the varied influences that have shaped my experience of art as medicine. These reflections are followed by an attempt to examine the methodological essentials of interpretive dialogue, after which we return to the living sea of practice through meditations on images. /1-5

Quotes

[Simple Beginnings]

—This attraction to art as medicine, and the openness people bring to the process, significantly deepens the experience and increases the powers of suggestion and persuasion that form the basis of every medicine. /12

—When I look at ego as one of many inner figures, I am amused by its actions. I observe its foibles with compassion and acceptance. Ego is not rejected, because it is a part of the process. Suppression only increases its power, whereas if I watch ego as a psychic figure, I am not completely possessed by it. Creative interaction and change replace possession and fixity. /13

—The skill involved has to do with learning to help people relax, to watch the flow of painting from the soul, and to realize that their individual style will emerge. /13-14

—This way of working is radically different from technique-oriented systems of contemporary psychotherapies. Our therapeutic values affirm diversity and the vitality and wisdom of spontaneous expression realized through freedom of movement and a moment-to-moment appreciation for what is taking place. /14

—This orientation does not deny psychopathology and its presence in our expression. Art therapy’s embrace of pathos can actually contribute to the revitalization of art, which flourishes when it opens to the troubles of the soul. /15

[Shamanic Continuities]

—Creative expression is a spontaneous and unconscious effort of the soul to treat itself in keeping with a ‘uniform metaphysical instinct.’ /17

—Without romanticizing psychosis and the way it disturbs thought, we can say that those suffering from emotional upheavals are in direct contact with powerful energies that can be channeled into paintings. /17

—Psychic illness is an alienation of soul and a possession of the psyche by preoccupations, obsessions, fears, anxieties, and other distractive conditions that are contemporary equivalents of the aboriginal ‘evil spirits.’ /18

—Our contemporary fascination with shamanism is an experience of a hunger for experiences that engage and sanctify the total spectrum of life, and not just the human dimension. /19

—The inner shaman is a figure within the soul, one of its many aspects, which contribute to its well-being. /19

—Shamanic cultures throughout the world describe illness as a loss of soul. The shaman’s task is to go on a journey in the search of the abducted or lost soul and return it to the sick person. /21

—The soul cannot be lost in a literal sense because it is always present within us. However, we do lose contact with its movements within our daily lives, and this loss of relationship results in bodily and mental illness, rigidification, and the absence of passion, and the estrangement from nature. /21

—Art as medicine embraces life as its subject matter, and separations among the arts are contratherapeutic. As I work with individuals, I am open to their poetic speech, stories, body movements, dramatic enactments, sounds, and other expressions as well as to teh pictures they paint. I try to establish contact with as many aspects of the person’s presence as possible. /22

—History affirms the value of collaboration in the artistic process. Our stereotypic fantasy of the individual artist, creating alone and outside society, ignores art’s history of cooperation and communal influences. To the extent that the work of the artist corresponds to the movements of soul in the world, the alienated artist is an expression of a contemporary malady. The artist who takes on the heroic values of our civilization lives out their tragic and unfulfilling consequences for all of us to witness, and reaffirms the need for community. /22

—Drumming and other percussive instruments were introduced to summon images and support their emergence. The drums help us to imagine painting as dance and movement. When we talk about pictures, our circle of painters is transformed into a community of storytellers. /23-24

—The lost and suffering soul that we encounter within mental institutions is an aspect of our collective human nature, which calls for attention through the extreme conditions of psychopathology. Compassion and identification with these conditions is the course helpful to our patients, but the patients have also helped us, and they have helped the soul, by drawing our attention to its needs. /24

—Tribal societies knew how to make use of those who were possessed by emotional upheavals. We do not. By trying to fix them, improve them, eliminate them, durg them, and cure them, we are showing that we have not grasped how they can help us. /25

—Rather than seeing pathology in a painting or dream as something sick and negative, we can embrace it as part of the soul’s nature. This orientation does not take us away from the clinic, the hospital, and the prison but instead deepens our therapeutic identification with those places where the soul’s suffering is most extreme. (…) Therefore, pathology is not limited to patients. It is in all of us, a fundamental element of the soul./25

—Tribal societies knew how to make use of those who were possessed by emotional upheavals. We do not. By trying to fix them, improve them, eliminate them, drug them, and cure them, we are showing that we have not grasped how they can help us. The best medicine I can offer to a troubled person is a sense of purpose, the feeling that what he is going through may contribute to the vitality of the community. The process is reciprocal. /25

—My experiences with the extremes of psychopathology have taught me that the therapy of soul extends to every life situation. The shrieks of the mental hospital have made me aware of the stoic yet equally needy souls in every community. By working with the soul in cases of extreme pathology, therapists get to know the range and depth of its expressions and afflictions. /25

—Art as medicine returns the treatment of pathologies to ritual activities within the context of a sympathetic community. If soul’s existence is inseparable from its pathologies, to restrict its exploration to hospitals and clinics restricts soul itself. By detaching pathology from an exlusive reference to sick persons, the therapeutic consciousness is let loose on every aspect of society. As soul thrives, everything around it thrives as well. /26

—The exclusive belief that therapy repairs what is wrong keeps us in a condition of eliminating symptoms. When these attitudes are applied to psychic images, we essentially eradicate the expressions of soul rather than entertain them. /26

[Attunement to the Archetypal]

—After making hundreds of simplistic sketches of the same house with a Christmas tree in front of it, Christopher, who had been in the hospital for thirty-five years, began to copy the design of his packet of Bugler tobacco. He not only grasped the gestalt of the image, but he rendered it with an intriguing style. I encouraged him to imitate paintings by Picasso and other prominent painters, and he responded with original interpretations. I coached him with occasional technical advice, and he went on to draw pictures of people in the studio and a series of self-portraits. Through the seven years that we worked together, the quality of the work was maintained. /27

—Anthony was thirty-five when we began our work together. For twenty years he had lived in a locked ward without carrying on a conversation with another person. It was thought that he was severely retarded. After months of making the same scribble of a human figure, he began to draw objects and people in his environment in an original style. With constant attention and support, he gradually spoke to me, touching his throat to feel the unfamiliar vibrations of dormant vocal chords. /27

—Both Anthony and Christopher ultimately left the hospital, and their involvement with art ended without the supportive environment of a studio tailored to their needs. /27

—Today in art therapy, whenever people ask me how to begin, I say: ‘Just paint. Begin to move with the brush in different ways. Watch what comes. If you paint, it ‘will come.’ Nothing will happen unless you begin to paint, in your own way. Start painting as though you are dancing with your whole body, and not just using your fingers and your wrist. Use your arms with the force of the body behind them. Look at the shapes that appear, and think about what you can do with them.’ /33

—I try to help people approach painting as tactile and movement-based. We deemphasize the ‘visual’ dimension at first, to avoid concentrating too much attention in the controlling mind. In our first pictures we simply move and express feelings while trying to suspend criticism. /34

—In our studios we try to help painters establish this orientation to the ‘responding’ mind rather than the ‘strategic planning’ mind. The artistic consciousness seldom operates according to blueprints and roadmaps. /34

—Nothing will happen unless a person begins and risks failure. And there will be constant failures and restarts and changes of direction along the way, all of which are essential to the emergence of something fresh and surprising. The same thing applies in the other arts. Nothing happens in the creation of a poem until the person starts to write. Ideas emerge from the movement of the hands and their interaction with the mind. All of the senses must collaborate if expression is to achieve psychic authenticity. /34

—’Creative blocks’ usually result from expectations that take us away from our immediate experiences. When art therapists ask me how I deal with blocks to expression, I talk to them about how important it is to engage the context of our present life and let the art flow from that source. I create from where I am and not from where I think I should be. /35

[Psyche’s Movement]

—I imagine soul as kinesis, process, creation, interplay, and continuous motion. Soul is generally synonymous with psyche, but it suggests particular and individualized conditions. It is a word that philosophers and artists have always used to suggest the essential vitality of a person, thing, or the world itself. Loss of soul is a ‘stuck’ condition in which the flow has stopped. Psychology speaks of ‘fixations’ as defenses against change. The ‘fixed’ idea is nonvolatile, stationary. Artists accustomed to a vital kinesis of imagination fear the prospect of ‘drying up.’ The soulless state is one of desiccation, when ‘the currents’ no longer run. /54

—When people open to art’s suggestions, they change as they watch images change. /56

—Heroic expectations are blindfolds, obstructing the spontaneous response to what arrives independently of my intent. /60

—Viewing art as an expression of ‘the unconscious’ assumes that consciousness is limited to reasoning. This attitude devalues the intelligence of the senses, the ‘thought of the heart,’ the thinking hand and eye, and the thoughtfulness of the moving body. /61

—Many of our psychic maladies are in fact caused by the overactive mind, and exclusively analytic therapies may deepen the quagmire. /61

[Imaginal Realism]

—Vigorous, disciplined, and imaginative sympathy with the life situation of people, cultures, and inner characters outside my immediate frame of reference is a racial political perspective. It counters the often brutal ax-grinding that ‘well-intentioned’ reformers inflict on others with their righteous ideology and singularity. Sympathy supports not vacillation but direct and imaginative action based on the specific nature of a situation. Art compassionately immerses itself in events while maintaining its flexibility of movement. /71

—The other says to me, ‘Tell me what you are going through, and that will be more helpful than telling me what to do. Give me an account of the conditions of your life, your wounds, the things with which you struggle and those that bring delight. I want to hear the longings of your soul, honest emotions, and not advice.’ /72

[Artist and Angel]

—Even lines, gestures, colors, and shapes can have an angelic existence. Artists are thus instruments of those manifestations. (…) The interpretive reductionism of our twentieth-century psychologies, in which pictures are viewed as EKGs of the artist’s emotions, signifies the loss of the angel. /75

—I am an artist reflecting on inner movements, and do not wish to present myself or my colleagues as ‘psychics’ who have special powers of communicating with spirits. Our sensibilities are nothing but the extraordinary resources of the ordinary imagination. /76

—Diagnostic interpreters are so concerned with attaching labels and reaching conclusions based upon the perspectives of their psychologies that they do not cultivate the relationship with the image and the internal drama that it invites. They take the message as though it were generated by a fax machine. Our free-spirited angels will never submit to labels that nail them down. It is their nature to awaken the soul and help it to contemplate itself through intermediaries—dreams, visions, feelings, paintings, music, poems, dance, objects, nature, animals, and even other people. /76

—As art therapy becomes part of a dramaturgy, as contrasted to the conventional tendency to locate it within behavioral science, and as the pictures and aspects of pictures exercise their ability to speak, the process parallels the functioning of angels. In Western history the arts have cared for the angels and saved them from extinction. The angels, like the arts, live outside the rules of reason. These movements do not oppose or challenge reason. They express different needs of the soul. /77

—Homes are unwittingly constructed as sanctuaries for familiar spirits. When we fill our houses with paintings, personal objects, family photographs, music, and other creative expressions, we are enveloping daily life in the plurality of angels. /77

—Anyone who insists that imagining angels is a form of madness has not distinguished psychosis from healthy imaginal life. People suffering from psychosis are flooded with repressed figures and voices. /77

—Confusion ensues because psychic figures are experienced as literal presences and cognition loses its ability to differentiate. We intensify the madness by denying the existence of these figures while simultaneously taking measures to eradicate them. Sick persons need guidance and support in making distinctions between imaginal figures and other forms of life. They need help in moving between inner and outer experience, private and public realms. /78

—Cross-cultural manifestations of the figures we call angels and their shamanic forebears conirm the absence of consistent conceptions and categories. It is the nature of angels to avoid universal definition and so assume varied and radically individualized characteristics. They are specific and intimate figures of the imagination who manifest themselves in an eternal variety of forms or formless presences. They may be conceived as persons who emerge from the artist’s imagination, as the force of creation that moves through the artist, as invisible objects of desire, and so on. /78

—Mythic, religious, and artistic accounts of angels and related phenomena are as multiple as the figures themselves. Each representation is shaped by the image that the person or culture is living, in cooperation with teh inherent nature of the angels. James Hillman says that while people want relationships with angels, it is animals that constantly appear in dreams and art. The animal images take on the angelic ‘functions’ of guiding and restoring the soul’s instinctual nature. /78

—Religions need not oppose the unpredictable multiplicities of the visionary imagination because the mysterium does not relinquish its essential and basic nature. It continues as the hypostasis of every manifestation. In our era when obedience to doctrine and control of the mind seem less significant than personal virtue, meditation, and the experience of creation, there is room once again for individual and independent angels who embody freedom of imagination and spiritual renewal. /79

—The guardian angel is a survival of the Greek daimon and even Socrates, the avatar of rational discourse, imagined that he was guided through his life by a personal daimonion. The Socratic daimonion, an inner teacher or conscience, appears to be synonymous with daimon. My guardian angel or daimon, is forever reinforcing my commitment to art therapy. /80

—Instead of restricting angels to clouds and celestial domains, they can be imagined as emotions and reflections. /80

—As we have found in our work in art therapy, it is the actions of human beings rather than those of the psyche that are dangerous. Nietzsche confirms that when the soul declares itself alone and in difficulty, sympathetic and personal figures will appear. Once again the shamanic pattern presents itself. /80

—It is the person of Zarathustra who reveals and defines himself in Nietzsche’s imagination. The author’s daimon and lifelong companion, not the person of Nietzsche, becomes the object of a sustained meditation and embodiment that brings profound satisfaction. Even though Nietzsche’s Zarathustra preaches self-actualization, the reality of the book involves the actualization of Nietzsche’s angel. The angel ‘individuates himself’ and spontaneously ‘ammounces the soul’s attainment of its truly personal symbol, and the great of the Event resides there.’ /82-83

[The Daimonic Tradition]

—The daimon is related to the Roman concept of genius and similarly serves as a guiding spirit. In our culture genius has lost its original meaning. To renew the notion of genius in art therapy, I have described it as the expressive style that is ‘native’ to a person. Our objective is to support the emanation of the soul’s individual nature, the genius of every person and thing. /90

—Whenever we are oriented exclusively to transcendence, the abandoned chthonic and sensual world becomes demonized. The earthly and imaginal instincts threaten the spiritual order which has not incorporated them as active collaborators, and the repressed aspect becomes a threatening shadow figure. Reason has made demons of essential aspects of soul because they do not fit into its moral schema, but the cultivation of soul involves an interaction with all its qualities. /90

—When artists speak of the spirits of inspirational figures in art who move through them as they create, they may be echoing something close to Hesiod’s ancestral daimones. The great artists of history certainly live on as guides and daimonic functionaries, taking up residence in the souls of later generations who have corresponding sensibilities. /91

—The daimon never takes on fixed meanings, because it is always moving. It is a formative power, creation itself. The personal daimon is associated with the psyche of the individual artist, a familiar, in contrast to the agencies of nature and the influences of other people. Pythagoras considered daimones to be the same as the psyches of men, and for Heraclitus the daimon was a person’s essential nature. (…) Plato presents them as intermediaries between gods and humans, tutelary spirits. (…) Menander in the fourth century B.C. said: ‘By every man at birth a good daimon takes his stand, to initiate him in the mysteries of life.’ /91-92

[Loquent Meditations]

—Our method of dialoguing is based upon careful and sustained observation of the physical qualities of an image. What is it that we see? How do our perceptions differ and agree? What attracts the eye first? Where does it go from there? What do we overlook? We might begin by thinking only of physical qualities—texture, forms, lines, colors, contrasts, light, dark, edges, figures, backgrounds, placements, spatial relationships, verticals, horizontals, and so on. /97-98

—This way of looking becomes a meditation on ‘the other.’ It prevents us from quickly labeling an image according to our frame of reference. /98

—We affirm the particular qualities that comprise its identity, the idiosyncratic traits that define the soul of a person or an object. The experience of soul is connected to the observation of specifics. It has nothing to do with generalizations, standard types, intellectual classifications, and habitual judgments. The person who looks into the soul of another contemplates facets of that person’s being without judgment. /98

[Creation Stories]

—In my studios people instinctively tell stories about the images they make—the obstacles they faced, problems they solved or did not solve, unexpected happenings. I prefer to call these descriptions ‘stories’ rather than ‘explanations.’ because the former suggests elements of poetry and emotion. The story is not necessarily a fiction, although invented and imaginary aspects can certainly further its dramatic and psychological impact. Storytelling is the soul’s speech, and it is free to move between the realities of imagination and literal events. /99

—The guiding attitude of this method is the treatment of images as ensouled. We approach them as we would a person, who similarly cannot be explained. (…) Neither the lion who lives in the wild nor the lion in a person’s painting can be reduced to ‘aggression.’ The more we know about lions, the more we see the unique and specific qualities of each animal. Labeling images betrays the absence of deeper knowledge of the phenomena. They are unique configurations that exist outside the context of descriptive categories. /99

—Our respect for mystery does not mean that we encourage obscurity. The stories we tell about images help us to see them with more emotional insight and visual precision. Stories elucidate the images and their psychological evocations while sustaining mystery. we affirm those aspects of the creative process which will never be grasped by the reasoning mind, but which nevertheless fuel the intellect and introduce drama to the interpretive process. Although it can be fascinating to continuously meditate on the physical qualities of paintings, the soul delights in the enactment of feelings and psychological tensions. /100

—Stories are generally motivated by a desire to share the process of making the image. Although these narratives are another phase of art’s emanation, they are reflective and historic, giving accounts of things that have already happened. (…) The story helps everyone in the group, including the painter, to become aware of the context in which a painting is created. It informs, inspires, and initiates us into the mysteries of the image. /100

—As people take turns in telling stories about their process, the ritual aspects of the procedure are enhanced. Since we typically give all of the people in the studio the opportunity to describe their work, the group practices the art of silent response and affirmation. In our studios we have found that it is natural and important to acknowledge all of the pictures that have been created, so methods tend to be focused on the need to engage the image as well as the person. Telling creation stories is a rite de passage that initiates outsiders into the inner context of the image. /100

[Responding]

—The giving of responses is always guided by the principle of staying with the image, and staying with the person who shows the paintings. If a person strays far afield from the image, the group feels the loss of engagement. Irritation brews if the discourse is not refocused on the image. If we stray with the image and the artist showing the work, we maintain a sensitivity for what is needed. /103

—Timing, sensitivity, precision, and sincerity are traits that we work toward in responding to one another in our studios. Strong, negative, or provocative statements support the group if the purpose of the expression is clear and acceptable. /103

—Attitudes toward time are surprisingly significant within the art therapy studio. Time can be viewed as a ‘personified notion’ that contains emotional histories. Being on time, having enough time, letting go of the past, concerns for the future, engaging the present, flexible engagement of unscheduled arrivals, patient postponement—the clock is the ultimate image of social regulation and it evokes our shadows of compulsion and inattentiveness to others as well as signaling the depth of our caring. /104

[Talking with Images]

—Image dialogue is based on acceptance of the autonomous life of pictures within a world of interactions and multiple perspectives. The artist realizes that the process of expression is never finished. It is unending dialogue. /105

—When I perceive the painting that I make, or the dream that I have as other than myself, I set the stage for dialogue. The painting might have something to say to me, and so I take on the role of listener rather than explainer. A shift takes place in art therapy when people leave the ego position and let the figures in paintings speak through them. These interactions may include both conversation and poetic speech. /106

—In their art work, adults return to the kinetic and free styles of painting that characterize the art of young children before imagination is displaced. The same thing happens when they begin to talk with paintings through the imaginative mind. Fresh and intriguing statements are made. The person speaking is taken by surprise. A sense of vitality emerges from these spontaneous expressions, unrestrained by habitual explanations. Getting out of the ego voice and experiencing other perspectives are fundamental to conflict resolution, innovation, and productivity. /106

—The process of talking with images is close to the free-association techniques of early psychoanalysis, which enabled ‘unconscious’ expressions to circumvent the ‘conscious’ mind. Freud described the artist as ‘leaving’ reality to become immersed in creative fantasy, whereas we see the artist as a person who moves among different realities and psychic states. Creative fantasy is simply another reality. /106

—During the Italian Renaissance, images were introduced to a patient’s imagination to stimulate changes. There was an emphasis on changing the images that lived within the person’s psyche rather than trying to alter the biological conditions of mind. The Renaissance therapies of imagination suggest that we might be better off changing images, stories, and conversations than attempting to ‘fix’ the organism that houses them. This image-centered orientation has fallen like a golden egg into the lap of art therapy. Art can once again operate as a ‘primary’ therapeutic method in which the creative process restructures the images and interactive processes that shape consciousness. /107

—People need coaching and support in dialoguing with images, because they typically think it unusual and ‘out of character’ or ‘childish’ to speak with imaginary figures. Children, by contrast, dialogue effortlessly when given the opportunity. The adult has fallen from imaginal grace. /107

—Image dialogues are threatening because they are not part of our habitual mode of conversation. We fear that we will not be able to do it, that we will make fools of ourselves, that we will not be creative enough, or we question the legitimacy of the procedure. The ideas in our minds block the expression of new images. We think too much about what we are doing, what we should be doing. We are overloaded with information and fear the loss of what we have. /107

—Participants in our studios describe how they ‘feel’ the conversations as discourse shifts into dialogue. The pictures and the experience of dialogue begin to act on our emotions. Paintings have stories to tell, feelings to express, complaints to make, and endless communications which expand the scope of our studio. If we view paintings as personified images, we identify with them in new ways. /108

—When we talk about pictures rather than with them, we are in the genre of opinion, and description. Talking with a person replaces monologue with dialogue; we find ourselves in group situations where we talk to ourselves, or simply talk in the company of others without interacting and listening. Artistic dialogue encourages each person’s expression but shifts it to a context of active listening and responding, in which the quality of the interaction is more important than making your point. We have found that this other-centered orientation helps individuals express themselves, since people make more of an effort to listen and support one another. /108

[The Value of Dialogue]

—I have found that people suffering from psychosis are living in states of perceptual fragmentation, withdrawal, and extreme self-protection. They are typically involved in autistic fantasies. Through image dialogues they make perceptual contact with a particular image and respond to it within a conversational context. Image dialogues differentiate states of consciousness and connect inner experience to external objects. /109

—Outside the realm of psychosis, image dialogues deepen the creative process. /109

—The dialogues help us to see more in our paintings. If I make a series of pictures of cows, I do not leave the specific images and conceptualize them as expressions of my feminity, ‘anima,’ the repression of the feminine, my nurturing potential, needs for nurturance, fear of nurturance, longing for mother, and so forth. These conceptualizations abandon the cows to the voracious and all-enveloping ego, which sees itself in everything. /109

—In our studios we try to stay with the cows, enter their world, and look carefully at their distinct qualities. How are they similar and different? How do I respond to the feelings they express through their colors, textures, bodies, faces, environment? /109

—Through dialogue I become sensitive to my interaction with the cows. Rather than try to explain ‘why’ I painted the cows, I encourage them to speak to me and to one another. /109

—Dialoguing with images is not always necessary. Cows being cows, they may not want to speak to us. (…) The psychic cows may be emissaries of pastoral existence, artistic daimones who shows us the pleasures of sensing without chatter. /110

—The value of Jung’s psychology has little to do with ‘proving’ the existence or nonexistence of autonomous figures. Psychic pathologies, wounds, and helpers all exist within the imagination his therapy activates. Jung’s practice of ‘active imagination’ follows the artistic tradition of encouraging characters and images to reveal themselves, to speak for themselves, and influence the person who contemplates them. /110

—Art as medicine strives to establish imaginal sympathies with simple things that are taken for granted each day. Actually, the things that we find most insignificant and even repulsive can be useful objects for dialogue. They contain our shadows, dislikes, biases, intolerances, inattentiveness, and sense of superiority. Commonplace objects—machines, trash, run-down houses, gawdy constructions, poorly painted pictures, ‘eyesores’—carry potential for imaginative dialogue about themes that we overlook. /112

—The picture feels insulted and asks: ‘What’s wrong with a first-grade painting? And isn’t the first grade the place where you stopped making pictures? Maybe you have to bo back to the first grade of your imagination, back to the fundamentals, in order to begin to paint. First you praise the freedom and spontaneity of children’s art and wish you could be that free, and then you begin to judge your work as ‘childish’ and reject it. You sound confused. Whom are you trying to please? Why can’t you enjoy yourself? Why is everything so serious? /112-113

—The patient may be less threatened by the prospect of talking to a figure in a painting than to another person. Ultimately, therapists must adjust their methods to the particulars of each situation and avoid generalization. /118

[Performance]

—The performance dimension was a natural extension or our attempts to find more spontaneous ways of interacting with paintings. With performance art we are able to give the artist the opportunity to move with the image, to enact the impact that it has on the psyche, and to explore how the image affects the body. Through performance we move from two to three dimensions and consciously introduce the ritual aspect of art therapy. /119

—People who respond to their art through performance in our studios report that the dramatic context brings the most complete release from debilitating self-consciousness. /120-121

—We generally limit performances to ten minutes to enhance focus. The participant senses that ‘This is it. This is my time.’ And the audience reciprocates with a corresponding attitude. Concentration is heightened by time restraints, which, far from creating inhibiting ‘pressures,’ stimulate creativity. /121

—Even highly trained performers found that the brevity of the format served to intensify the work, largely as a result of its ability to hold the attention of the audience at peak levels of concentration. The sequential process of three or four performances following one another also demands that we do not saturate the audience and drain their capacity to respond. I have discovered that brevity, as in the haiku poem, helps to articulate the essential statement with a minimum of distractions. /121

—The presentation of the body as an image helps eliminate the separation of teh art work from its environment. Customer, together with the archaic practice of painting and decorating the body, bring yet another trace of shamanic practices. Artists enter, move within, and leave the environment of the performance. /125

—As temporal events, performances are inseparable from ritual. A performance is presented once. This immerses it in the larger context of life and undermines the tendency to view art as an object separate from both time and life. The performance has its designated time yet connects participants to the nonlinear ‘dreamtime’ of shamanic culture. /125-126

—By keeping a performance as simple as possible, artists increase their sensitivity to the environment, the group energy, and the dreamtime. I often introduce performance to a studio group by inviting participants to leave their positions in the circle and move into the center of the group for at least sixty seconds while they practice presenting themselves as images. This elementary change in position, together with the absence of talking, generates a transformative sensitivity to bodily communication. Presence is heightened through silence, and there is an immediate sense of the group’s focused energy and the animation of the physical space. /126

—Our performance art relates to images that have emerged from paintings and helps the actor to establish bonds to feelings and images that have been ‘inwardly experienced.’ The performance offers both an opportunity to reenter the feeling of the experience and to travel to yet another place. /126

[Dreaming]

—Although paintings are frequently made in response to dreams, dreams can themselves interpret art with insights that the conscious mind cannot approach. In this way dream experience joins performance, dialogue, and meditation in contributing to the exegesis of a picture. Dreams speak through visual imagery, environments, movements, and feelings as well as words. /128

—Every painting and dream is a new birth in which the procreating imagination lives and sustains its generative force. /130

—Dreams and paintings involve a nonlinear convergence of forces—psychic and material, personal and impersonal—which interact to create an event. /130

—The dream is not to be interpreted literally, and we assist the agents provocateurs in eluding the snares of literalism. The literal reading of the dream may limit interpretive meditation. Something that is repugnant in waking life may serve the symbolic purpose of the dream. Yet I do not want to say that dreams never speak literally. Their communications are multifaceted and often include shockingly direct expressions. /131

—Dreams are vital participants in our art therapy studios. Their emanation closely parallels the making of artistic images, and we respond to dreams in much the same way that we engage paintings. The making of artistic images can be likened to a waking dream. By sharing dreams we immerse our studio in the irradiations of psyche and invoke its manifestations. My meditations on dreams spiritualize my waking life, and there is no doubt that the raw material of what I do each day, the insignificant, subtle, and unwatched experiences, provide the subject matter for psyche’s nocturnal art. /131

—In a contemporary and ‘living’ dream life, the artifacts of the present become shamanic tools, which are not restricted to rattles, drums, horses, feathers, and other classical objects. The presence of contemporary artifacts in dreams is an opening to the discovery of divinities in our homes, streets, work places, the devis and devas who flourish in our shopping malls. The instinctus divinus is strongest in the most unlikely and therefore most unconscious places. Dreams thus infuse the day world with the divine. /134

[Image Dialogues]

—Image dialogue is a mode of the creative process that follows picture making and creates yet another series of expressions. This therapy of the imagination was anticipated by Jung, who introduced all of the creative arts therapies to psychotherapy through his practice of active imagination, an inner drama involving the full spectrum of artistic expressions. /145

—My use of dialogue has emerged from a desire to deepen psychological engagement with images and amplify the spectrum of expression. /145

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The Four Insights

 

The Four InsightsWisdom, Power, and Grace of the Earthkeepers, Los Angeles: Hay House, 2007.

The Four Insights chronologically is the last of the three books by Dr. Alberto Villoldo that I review here, as it was the most recent at the time I drafted these reviews.

The book is structured very differently from the preceding ones, in that it condenses the teaching into Four Insights.

Part One: Understanding the Energy of Perception

The Four Levels of Perception
Your Energetic Anatomy

Part Two: The Four Insights

Insight One—The Way of the Hero

The Practice of Nonjudgment
The Practice of Nonsuffering
The Practice of Nonattachment
The Practice of Beauty

Insight Two—The Way of the Luminous Warrior

The Practice of Fearlessness
The Practice of Nondoing
The Practice of Certainty
The Practice of Nonengagement

Insight Three—The Way of the Seer

The Practice of Beginner’s Mind
The Practice of Living Consequently
The Practice of Transparency
The Practice of Integrity

Insight Four—The Way of the Sage

The Practice of Mastering Time
The Practice of Owning Your Projections
The Practice of No-mind
The Practice of Indigenous Alchemy Continue reading

Healing the Luminous Body

 

Healing the Luminous BodyThe Way of the Shaman, Sacred Mysteries: 2004, featuring paintings by Alex Grey.

Healing the Luminous Body was my first access to Dr. Villoldo’s unique healing methods that he presents and explains in more detail in his books. This DVD is very well done, a calm and peaceful introduction into the philosophy, the development and the effectiveness of healing the luminous body..

Dr. Villoldo expresses himself fluently, and he is able to inform about the unusual subject in a competent and poised manner. It becomes clear that he speaks of experience, not of theory. Continue reading

Shaman, Healer, Sage

 

Shaman, Healer, SageHow to Heal Yourself and Others with the Energy Medicine of the Americas, New York: Harmony Books, 2000.

Shaman, Healer, Sage is perhaps Alberto Villoldo’s best book. It was anyway the book that made him famous, a real bestseller. It has given me an ultimate peak of reading enjoyment and illumination, and it has also emotionally touched me.

The author comes over in this book as a really honest, competent, emotionally mature, wistful and empathetic person who went through a personal transformation that only few people in these times can say to have accomplished.

This book is not only highly recommended lecture; it can perhaps be considered as one of the best books so far in the century on the issues of shamanic healing and the challenging task to render an outlandish practice of Inka shamans comprehensive to the modern mind! Continue reading

Healing States

 

Healing StatesA Journey into the World of Spiritual Healing and Shamanism, with Stanley Krippner, New York: Simon & Schuster (Fireside), 1984.

Healing States is a research volume that Alberto Villoldo co-authored with Stanley Krippner, and it’s a glorious onset of his own career in spiritual healing. The research presented in this book is highly thought-provoking if not mind-boggling, and it’s well presented.

The point of departure of the author’s scientific journey was his research on psychosomatic medicine. He was interested what exactly makes the soma follow the psyche, or why the spirit imprints itself on the soma, thus causing either health or disease. The authors write:

A growing number of allopathic physicians believe that as much as 80 percent of all illness may contain a psychosomatic component. Allopathic medical science, which does not publicly acknowledge the psychic realm, is still at a loss to explain the origin and treatment of many of these psychosomatic disorders, often merely referring to ‘unconscious conflicts’ that can trigger disease./19

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Embracing Our Selves

 

Embracing OurselvesThe Voice Dialogue Manual, Novato, CA: New World Library, 1989.

The Voice Dialogue Manual was my companion in the two years I practiced dialoguing with my inner selves. Let us first clarify what voice dialogue actually is all about? It’s a synonym for the inner dialogue with all our inner selves.

The Voice Dialogue Manual accompanied me with valuable advice over these years; I highly appreciated its clarity and depth that gives immediate credit to the authors’ immense expertise with facilitating personal change and transformation. This is not just a technical manual that teaches a method. It’s that also, but much more. Here is how the authors introduce the book:

Voice Dialogue is not a school of psychotherapy, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy, and it is not a profession in and of itself. It is a technique for psychological exploration and for the expansion of awareness. Although it can be a highly effective tool for any psychotherapist it should be clearly understood that it is not a complete and autonomous therapeutic system./78

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Pleasure

 

PleasureA Creative Approach to Life, Alachua, Fl: Bioenergetic Press, 1970/2004.

In Pleasure: A Creative Approach to Life, Alexander Lowen (1910-2008) explains why pleasure is of the utmost importance for a sane and balanced life, and for both mental and physical health and wellbeing.

We are living in another era than Dr. Lowen did. The control of the state has risen about everywhere in the world, the principles of pleasure and self-regulation have largely been abandoned and replaced with a sort of compulsive morality or moralism that interpenetrates today all of life, and of political life.

Hence, the books of the late Dr. Wilhelm Reich and Dr. Alexander Lowen are the reminders today for us that the social policies in place, with their negativistic view of the human being, their tendency to declare more and more of natural behavior ‘a crime’ and to sharply control human behavior, together with the prohibition of psychedelic substances mark a turn in the wrong direction, away from nature and toward more and more structural violence and state control.  Continue reading