Thursday, 8 August 2019

DIVINE PLAY: Opening to Creativity in Life and Spiritual Practice WILL DAY (1)

                                  William Morris: Willow & Tulip

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.

Reflective Drawing.

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.

DIVINE PLAY: Opening to Creativity in Life and Spiritual Practice WILL DAY (2)

William Morris: Bird & Pomegranate

Will Day: Creative Arts Therapist. Practitioner of various creative arts. Camaldolese Oblate.

Using Objects.

Collect small objects: Stones, old keys, little figurines of animals and humans... again, go to a $2 shop or an op shop and explore; all sorts of small things, dragons, buddhas, kittens, marbles,  coloured matchsticks .... Or gather ordinary everyday things like old batteries, cotton buds, paper clips, bulldog clips, bottle tops, little chocolate easter eggs wrapped in bright shiny tin-foil... Your own creativity will draw you to all sorts of small things you had never considered as art materials or creative prompts.

I've come home from an op shop with a large bag of countless small rolls of wool of all textures and colours, and a bag of numerous buttons of all colours and shapes. A handful of sticks, some buttons and a handful of wool is the beginning of a great creative art session.

Select three or four objects, or a handful and begin to play with them, arranging them in various ways, creating a tableau, a meaningless but aesthetically satisfying tableau. Or create a more directed narrative of some kind. Let the shapes, textures, colours and arrangements give you pleasure. You may feel a little foolish at first but that's ok; feel foolish, and keep playing. You don't have to make something profound, you simply play, and discover the pleasure and satisfaction of pleasing your own, individual creative sensibility - “Why am I so delighted by the way that tiny button sits in the middle of that triangle of cotton buds?” Why? Who knows, and who cares, what is real is that it appeals to you.

If you can't find your way in with a particular set of objects, put them aside and try something else. Experiment! discover YOUR desires, YOUR taste, YOUR pleasure....

Create a little tabeau on your window sill and let it sit there to please you over time. You might eventually add to it, subtract from it, remove it, create a new one. One day you might look at it and be surprised to discover your playful tableau is communicating something about a dilemma you are grappling with; it has entered you and is speaking to you like a dream perhaps....

One of the lovely dream teachings I encountered a while back suggests you carry the previous night's dream with you during the day like a small pebble in your pocket, absent-mindedly turning it over in your fingers now and then as you make your way here and there; your arrangement of objects can be like that pebble in your pocket.

But, I want to emphasise, your tableau doesn't have to reveal significant meanings, or any 'meaning' at all, it is alive and great just as it is, as fruit of your play...

Objects from nature.

Go into your garden, or onto the nature strip, or a nearby park, or down to the river or the creek to find your 'materials'. Leaves, seed pods, twigs (you can break a few twigs into small sticks all about the same size) bark, fallen flowers, fruit pips, stones ... a little soil, or sand, or gravel, all those different textures ... You will be surprised what you discover. The more carefully you look, the more curious and fascinating the things you will find and wonder at, the rich creativity of our natural environment.
This is a beautiful way to discover your garden, or your parkland, and to enter into a much deeper relationship with those places; you tune into the objects which in themselves are tuned into the environment, so they lead you in there... You may be drawn to simply sit there amongst and within it all, and believe me, the more deeply you enter into the creativity within the natural world, the more deeply it will feed your own creativity.

Take your materials home, find a quiet spot, light a candle, perhaps put some music on, lay down a sheet of paper and look at your riches – colours, textures shapes, reflect on them and take these things into you (this is satisfying and enriching in itself, simply looking and feeling). Begin discovering and playing with, arranging, your bits and pieces. You may introduce some non parkland materials; you might combine leaves, petals and twigs with torn bits of textured paper and pastel lines.

Sit and gaze at what you have made.
What do you see?
Does your creation speak to you in some way? Remind you of anything? Prompt a train of thought or an idea? Spark another creative activity?

Let yourself be fascinated by very simple arrangements of very simple things – move them around, draw in response to them, move in response to them, talking to them with your body. If dance is intimidating, just start with your hands, move your hands – let your creation inspire your hands to spontaneously move. Or use words; chat to or with your objects; is there a poem lurking somewhere within you?

There is an ethical question when it comes to collecting materials from nature it seems to me. Given how we humans have so plundered and despoiled this poor planet, do we have a right to take things from the parkland rather than leave them there to do their natural thing? Sometimes I think not. Sometimes I'm less concerned. Sometimes I take things home but prefer to return them to a natural setting when I've finished playing. In general, I find it hard to take living things, to tear leaves off a tree, flowers from a bush... there is so much material already lying under the trees and strewn on the ground...
Having said all that, it is very enjoyable to gather and create with your natural objects in their natural setting. Sit under a tree amongst the leaves and sticks and begin making; sit on the sand and play with the shells and sea-weed like a small child; sit in your backyard and while away an hour or two...

Box of Images and Pieces of Paper.

Another variation on this sort of thing is what we might loosely call collaging. Collect cut-outs from newspapers and magazines. Collect packaging, old gift paper, shopping bags, wax paper... you are collecting colour, shape, texture, images and print...
With all these kinds of pastimes it is not just your conscious mind that chooses your materials, your spirit is choosing too and sometimes for reasons you know nothing about.
Collect your bits and pieces and keep them in a box. When moved, take out the box, light a candle (or not) chose a subject (or not) and, as with your collection of little objects, or the materials you might gather from the garden, begin arranging, collaging, stopping, looking, reflecting, resting quietly...  Ask 'What do I see?'... 'How does this feel?'... and notice what images or associations come forth within you. Or simply enjoy the experience of letting your creativity flow aimlessly, in an undirected fashion. Experiment.

If you let yourself fall into creative play in these ways your creativity will spontaneously come up with actions and ideas that surprise, delight and possibly confront you. This may be in terms of what you depict and how (and where that takes you), or perhaps the manner in which you use your materials. Whether your materials be leaves and sticks, images and wax paper, crayons, paints or pencils, allow your creativity to be alive to the many possibilities with any given object or art material. You may be inspired to use your crayon in a way you never have before; unwrap it and use the side of it on the paper; smudge the colour on the page, smudge one colour into another, use the crayon dust on your fingers to make marks on the page; fold, tear, crumple or make holes in your sheet of paper before you begin drawing on it...
Let yourself follow these creative impulses (if you dare) and this in itself will enrich you and can flow into how you travel through the rest of the day.

You may find yourself becoming more alive to the way life dances with you. Colours, and the relationships between colours may be more vivid and more distinctly themselves, more delightful to you. The forms of objects may seem to be more unique and fascinating. You may see beauty in surprising places. You may find yourself doing something differently, spontaneously, rearranging something and starting again. Your relationships with others may become a little more spontaneous and playful. Your attitude to yourself may become more open and curious. You may notice more of what Buddhist nun Pema Chodron calls 'Life's echoes and messages': the spontaneous, creative ways in which Life, Spirit, Consciousness, God, communicates with you constantly throughout the day with images, gestures, sights, words, interactions, weather changes etc. All of them pregnant with symbolic weight, echoing and reflecting you, and offering newness over and over....
Creativity is a recalibrating energy which flows into us, within us and out of us and, potentially, reorganises to the good.

Some of you may know contemporary Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan Lee; speaking of the USA he suggests it is a culture which, like none before, has repressed the 'inner worlds'; the imaginal, the symbolic, the creative, the intuitive, the realms of angels, faeries, messages from God and from nature, the deep mysterious realms within us and without us which enrich life and give it depth of meaning. It seems to me that activities like those I am describing here are portals to some of those hidden realms within us...

What Do You See?

This is a lovely question and guide if we wish to reflect on our creativity and what we have made.

'What do you see?' is the title of a book by art therapist Maya Betensky; the idea, as I have used it, is to sit back from your creation, gazing and reflecting for a while in silence, letting go of your preconceptions, judgements etc and allowing the image, or creation to enter you and letting yourself enter it. Then you move into a process of noticing.

What do I notice? This isn't an interpretive process, it is literally about what you see in front of you ...I notice there is a lot of yellow on the page.... I notice the drawn image is in the bottom right hand corner and the rest of the page is blank... I notice lots of wavy lines... I notice the way the blotch of green bleeds into the blotch of brown... I notice the marks on the page are strong and deeply etched ... or fine and feathery....

And you may notice your internal reactions to the things you notice; that jarrs with me, that soothes me, the proximity of those two things reminds me of X in my life, that row of dots makes me chuckle, the colour of that line reminds me of a building I know or of another drawing I once did, or of a dream I had... Let your being contemplate the image and your internal responses. Your creativity and intuition will make of it what they will, or not, and in their own time...

An image,  a colour, a shape or a relationship between shapes may simply be profoundly comforting... and for no obvious reason.

A blank space inside a circle may be disconcerting...and  for no conscious reason

A stick figure of a man may bring a spontaneous realisation which has nothing obvious to do with a stick figure of a man.

There are various interpretive, analytical and therapeutic steps which might follow on from these kinds of noticings, and there are various processes which might be used to explore such territory. They can be pursued if one should choose to do so. But they are not necessary.

However if you wish to find an experienced practitioner to assist you in your explorations most towns and cities will have listings for art therapists, creative arts therapists and various other kinds of practitioners who are skilled in accompanying you in exploring your creative work in relation to your life, your history, your concerns and desires.

You may wish to take a course to refine your skill

DIVINE PLAY: Opening to Creativity in Life and Spiritual Practice WILL DAY (3)

William Morris: Golden Lily

Will Day: Creative Arts Therapist. Practitioner of various creative arts. Camaldolese Oblate.

A Quiet Day with a Friend.

Over the past few years I have met with a friend at Holy Cross Retreat Centre in Templestowe. We find a small room with a table and we lay out our art materials. Sometimes we light a candle. Then we sit quietly allowing the silence to nourish us for a while... out of which one or the other may share a poem or short piece of writing which speaks to them at the time, or we may share a concern, or delight, or some other thought about an aspect of our lives and spiritual paths... we sit with that, and reflect on it a while, exchanging responses... then back to silence.

During this first phase of the session a particular mood is established, certain interests or concerns are there in the air...  and from this ground we commence to draw. We draw in silence for a period of time, simply allowing ourselves to express, explore and discover.

When we have finished drawing we sit for a while in silence, then return to a period of discussion and reflection based around our drawings, our thoughts, our lives and our respective spiritual paths. And then we bring the session to a close and  go into the gardens to share lunch.

We both find these sessions particularly rich, nourishing and encouraging, feeling held by the Silence, the Presence, by the atmosphere of the holy place, by our friendship and our shared creativity. I believe we learn and grow.

And of course there are many possible variations on such a session. The energy of the session may move to a place where you flow into a chant or song, then back to drawing. You may conduct such a session in parkland, or go into your garden and make assemblages in situ with what you find there, then look at each others and reflect on them (What do you See?).

This kind of thing is a special mode to share with a friend; in the contemplative mode, and in the creative zone, the talk that arises is different, the rhythms and patterns of our speech change. There might be a lot more natural silence, and out of that a rich, more spontaneous and gently enlivened conversation emerges. Time changes too. I particularly notice, in the creative zone, how time evaporates and we are dropped into the nowness of now – we become different people too in that zone.
If you participate in a series of such sessions you build a container for these particular ways of being, of exploring, a time of revelation and sharing.  And these modes may more easily enter into other parts of your life.

Sharing Creativity with Others.

It is so very beautiful to meet with a friend, or friends, to engage in creative pursuits and creative exploration.

Instead of going out for coffee, or to a movie, or to a talk, you might gather with friends to have a sing, either the shared songs in your heads (childhood songs are great) or print off some words so you are all 'on the same page'. You can experiment with harmonies, and percussion instruments. Printing off the words is preferable, it seems to me, to finding lyrics on our phones while gathered together. Smart phones are miraculous but also invasive; ABC radio recently informed me that research indicates that conversation is more superficial if a phone is in view, and apparently there is also research indicating we sleep more lightly if our phone is in the bedroom.
My friend Paul is an artist who doesn't drive. Most days he is on public transport, and he draws while he makes his way into the city, or out into the suburbs. He often draws portraits of his fellow commuters and so he makes all sorts of incidental connections with people who are curious about what he is doing. He regularly tells me about a sweet exchange he has had with someone on the tram during the day, and he sometimes establishes ongoing friendships. I think of him as bringing the spirit of lila onto the tram with him; he begins to draw and others catch that spirit and want to engage.

He told me he recently met a young Pakistani fellow. They began talking about smart phones. The Pakistani guy works in IT. He told Paul that when he meets up with his friends he asks them to give him their phones. He turns them off and puts them away in his bag until their social event is over.  There's a thought.

Gather to share poetry: Have a meal together, then sit and read poetry and share your responses... the shared poetry opens a new kind of conversation. Experiment with accompanying your friend’s poem with wordless singing, or humming, or toning, or hand claps, finger clicks...

Gather together specifically to share stories from your lives, or your ancestors' lives... tell them artfully.

If you have a friend who is a musician, writer, dancer or poet, it can be lovely to organise to meet for a coffee simply so your friend can talk about their creative work and their creative process. You might be surprised at what they tell you, and you might be surprised at the questions you find yourself asking. This will nourish your own creativity.

If you have an artist friend, invite them to an art gallery to show you some of the work there from their point of view, to talk to you about the art works which captivate them.

Give Yourself a Retreat.

Give yourself a Retreat Day, or Retreat Morning. If something is on your mind, or you feel you need some space and quiet, or you simply feel drawn to be more completely with the Presence, the Silence for a while, you can give yourself a retreat at home. Or if your home is a busy place, perhaps a friend will let you use their place while they are at work, or while they are on holiday.

You might commence by setting the intention that you will be spending the next couple of hours, or the day, opening to silence, to your soul, and to the sacred presence.

You can design your retreat time to suit your needs. Let your creativity guide you. Perhaps you might include periods of Silence, Chanting, Reflective drawing, Journaling, Dance etc.

If you've spent the morning meditating, chanting and drawing at home, in the afternoon you might take yourself to a park or a waterway and spend a couple of hours simply sitting and walking, letting the natural world commune with you, and you with it...observe, idle, reflect, pick up objects and really look at them, look closely, reflectively at trees, flowers, birds, bark...

Collect some objects, sit under a tree or on a bench, and make an arrangement, a tableau, a picture, a story. Reflect on it a while. Sit in silence.

And then you might return home, perhaps journal a little, following which you might close your retreat with a period of prayerful silence, and gratitude.

Making Chants.

Writing a song sounds daunting for many of us, but anyone can find a line of scripture, poetry, song or text, which speaks to them, or intrigues, puzzles, delights, comforts, strengthens... You might invent a line that speaks to you, or it may be something a friend has said, or even wordless sounds which move you. You might like to add Allelulia, Amen, Gloria to your chant.

And you can make a tune to fit it. Just experiment. If you're unsure, start with a tune you already know and change it a little, experiment...enjoy experimenting and discovering... choose a simple line... choose a simply tune...

If there is something on your mind, something troubling you, you may like to choose a relevant line, or write a relevant line, and make a chant that will work in you, will work with the issue.

If you play an instrument you may like to accompany your chant, or you may use handclaps or other body percussion. Karatalas also known as 'bells' are small finger cymbals popular in various parts of the world; they are a lovely simple way to add to your chant and help you to keep a rhythm. Investigate.

So once you've made your chant, when you've got your line of words, and your tune, you simply chant the line over and over, perhaps varying volume and pace. You might initially like to experiment, but eventually the Spirit will guide you. In the Hindu world a very common pattern is to begin the chant slowly and reflectively for some minutes and then build pace and volume to express an intensity of love for some minutes, then winding down again until the chant almost disappears into silence.

The silence that opens after chanting for a while is very very special. Everything seems so very still, the atmosphere resounding silently with the devotion of the chant. The Presence can be so palpable.

A friend of mine was up at Tarrawarra Abbey many years ago speaking with one of the very old monks who was regarded as a holy creature. The old monk told my friend that many people came into the chapel there to pray but few stayed after praying to hear God's answer. It seems to me that the silence after chanting is like that, it is full of God's answers…