Will Day: Creative Arts Therapist. Practitioner of various creative arts. Camaldolese Oblate.
At this year’s Carmelite Symposium ‘Ways of Seeing’, I was invited to present a session for those wishing to explore their creativity and its relationship to their spiritual life. I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some of that material here on the blog.
We are all creative beings.
Whether we are arranging things on our desks, putting together a meal, negotiating a difficult conversation or spontaneously breaking into a little, gleeful dance routine, our creativity is at play. It lives in us from our very beginnings, propelling us forward into the ever-new.
Artists and inventors show us the wonderful, mysterious dimensions of this human capacity. But we don't have to identify as artists to enter their life-giving game. By making a conscious choice to foster and explore our creativity, any of us may open a door to great pleasure, nourishment, challenge and revelation.
Here are some simple and practical suggestions for those wishing to open to and explore their own creativity. Whether you are a beginner, someone who has well and truly begun, or someone wary of the whole endeavour I hope you may find here some useful techniques and inspirations.
Implicit throughout all that follows is the understanding that creative activities may potentially become contemplative and prayerful. Of course one might experience creative activities without them being in any way overtly contemplative, and one might also, on occasion, find oneself spontaneously falling into a contemplative zone whilst drawing, playing music or such. However if you decide to sit down to draw, stand up to dance, or begin arranging some collage materials with the intention of being open to inspiration, communion and transformation then you are choosing to engage in a contemplative practice. Intention is very powerful here.
I Can't Draw!
Many of us feel inhibited when it comes to the creative arts. It is very, very common for people to say 'I can't draw', 'I can't paint', 'I can't dance', 'I haven't a creative bone in my body' etc. These notions obviously spring from experience but in many cases they seem to me to be eminently adjustable. As ideas, such thoughts are very powerful, and powerfully limiting. Yet in a curious way they may actually be the tiniest of impediments because they are simply ideas, even if based on prior experience.
Might it be possible to make the decision to start afresh, and see what happens THIS TIME? Might it be possible to brush the old ideas to the side, like feathers, just for now, and having done so, make the discovery that your creativity is right there, waiting, ready to go? Notice I say 'your creativity', not your capacity to imitate Michelangelo.
The trick might be to begin in a spirit of curiosity and play, rather than with the expectation that you must make ART, draw a perfect horse, or dance a 'perfect' line . For me, aesthetic splendour or beauty has more to do with authenticity of expression than anything else. My attitude to art galleries and the reverencing of 'art' in those places changed radically when I turned to art therapy and began working in nursing homes, psycho-social rehab contexts, and with many other groups of people who were motivated to explore, to play, to find out, to follow their curiosity... I was constantly stunned by the power, beauty, wonder and fascination of what people made with their own curious hands in their own humble ways. Constantly I found myself looking at 'art' much richer and more fascinating to me than much of what I see in galleries. It was the enthralling attraction of human difference and particularity, managing, often struggling, to express itself creatively.
I too began as a person who 'can't draw', who was intimidated by paints, pastels and clay (I still am a bit intimidated by clay), and simply because I was encouraged, decided to have a go, was given some art materials and the freedom to be messy, awkward, insecure and curious, I became PLAYFUL, and once that door is open Lila (the cosmic spirit of Divine Play) puts her hands on the reins with you and off you go....and so, over time I discovered new arts-based activities and a sensibility around them which has enriched my life immeasurably, and which has become a well of healing power and spiritual nourishment.
Find a nice crayon, perhaps a soft powdery crayon. Find an appealing piece of paper or card; go to an art supplies shop and spend some time looking at and feeling the varieties of crayons, of papers and card, this in itself can be stimulating and can stir and excite your creativity. Years ago Ayurvedic practitioner Dr Lorna Scurfield told me that in the Ayurvedic tradition it was understood that digestion begins in the fingers. In a culture where food has traditionally been eaten with the hands, rather than with metal utensils, the fingers are the first to feel the various textures and shapes of the food. This sensory experience enters the body and stimulates, enters the digestive system and turns on the digestive juices. Similarly, looking at, feeling and gathering art materials with pleasure and expectation sparks the creative process and begins to turn the wheels of imagination and creation, long before you sit at the table to formally 'begin'.
If you haven't the money to spend at an art supplies shop, op shops can be treasure troves for art materials, as are $2 shops.
So, find a crayon, find some paper, then find a quiet, comfortable spot.
Perhaps you might light a candle.
Begin to draw; you are simply exploring; what can this crayon do? Perhaps you might draw a line of colour, or a circle of colour, a shape of some kind. Go over it a few times with your crayon, methodically, meditatively, settling into the activity, grounding, forming a basis. Begin to colour the circle in. This can be so satisfying (I particularly enjoy doing this with coloured pencils) quietly filling the inside of the circle with this new, interesting field of colour. It doesn't have to have an overt meaning; simply the movement, the reflective concentration, the repetitive physical activity, entrains the human organism in a particular way...
James Taylor sang; 'deep greens and blues are the colours I choose, won't you let me go down in my dreams'. Simple shapes and colours have deep connections and meanings within us, as do simple movements, like the circle dances of so many cultures on this planet. The repeated steps, circlings and rhythmic gestures of the dance somehow stimulate, recalibrate and realign, just as the simple rhythmic strokes, patterns and colourings in of our drawings tend to settle, smooth, integrate and enliven.
I recall attending classes with Somatic Psychotherapist and Buddhist Julie Henderson years ago in which she told us that branches of contemporary physics were coming around to the Buddhist understanding that at the most fundamental level, matter, or the underlying energies constituting matter, tend to form in circles spirals and waves, so all those ancient tribal circle dances where we classically move in circles, spirals and waves, and which can produce such a profound sense of ease, of well being and harmony both within the individual and communally, may simply be realigning us, macro with micro. I suspect this may have a visual correlate as well.
It seems to me I got a clue to this some years ago: Lying on my back amongst the old eucalypts on the bank of the Yarra River I gazed directly upward into the fractal crazy-paving of the tree canopy high above; beautiful random patternings of leaves, branches, sky, shadow and light forming an aesthetically glorious sky-field. Somehow gazing up into this was deeply settling and orientating. Is it that the natural fractal forms and patterns, were somehow mirroring forms and patterns deep within my physiology, bringing me deeply into myself? I wonder.
So the simple experimentation with drawing, with shapes and colour can open a door into a nourishing, inspiring and mysterious dimension. I'm not talking about bells and whistles; you might enthusiastically draw a marvellous castle and miss it all if you hadn't quieted and settled, but if you manage to quiet and settle a little, letting the drawing process lead you as much as you lead it, then the subtler pleasures and gifts may reveal themselves.