Intention Mandalas

Open Heart Mandala Sara Roizen

Open Heart Mandala
Sara Roizen

Find yourself and express yourself in your own particular way. Express your love openly. Life is nothing but a dream, and if you create your life with love, your dream becomes a masterpiece of art.

~ Don Miguel Ruiz

Yesterday was the last day of 2015!
I was fortunate to spend a couple of hours in my studio as the golden light crept across the snow outside.

While drawing, I silently meditated on the past year. It was full of transitions and new adventures, with a move from NYC to Massachusetts and the birth of our second child. Now that we are fairly settled, I have been increasingly focused on my art and art therapy paths. I am excited to put down my creative roots here and see what grows.

I stopped making ‘official’ New Year’s resolutions a while ago. I used to make rather concrete resolutions related to healthier eating, exercise, and career goals. Like many people, I would steadfastly chip away at my New Year’s goals for a while and then revert to my normal patterns. This year I felt a strong pull towards holding an intention instead of making a resolution. To me, an intention is something that you gently hold in your heart and continue to reflect on each day. It can be somewhat abstract in nature, and more of a guiding inner framework.

As you probably know, I love creating mandalas. Yesterday as I reflected on my intention for 2016, I was inspired to create two mandalas. I will hang them up in my studio as a daily reminder. The two words that came to mind for my first mandala (top image): open heart. This is my intention – to live with a more open heart every day. This sounds like a very broad intention, but in my mind it is very simple. Simple but not always easy. Each moment, experience, and interaction can be met with a closed heart or an open heart. Another way of framing this is choosing to respond to life’s moments from a place of fear or love.

beginning the mandala

The second mandala I created is inspired by the heart chakra mandala. Chakras are energy centers within our bodies and there are 7 chakras. Each chakra relates to a different spiritual and physical aspect of our being. The heart chakra is located in our chest and governs the heart, cardiac, and lymphatic systems. When the heart chakra is closed or blocked, we have a hard time connecting with others and with ourselves. We make fear based decisions and live from a smaller sense of self. When this chakra is open, we are connected, grounded in self-compassion, and move through life from a place of love.

As I sat down to create this mandala, I felt my breathing slow down and my shoulders relax. The sense of the daily rush faded into the background. There was a feeling of ‘enoughness’ instead of lack. I could almost feel my heart expanding as I drew each line. As usual, I did not trace out a deign beforehand. Instead I trusted that each line would end up where it needed to be. My mandalas are never perfectly symmetrical. I like it this way. It’s not about a quest for perfection. It’s about embracing each perfectly imperfect moment with an open heart.

Here is my finished heart chakra inspired mandala. Every time I look at it, I will be reminded of my intention to live from an open hearted space.

What is your intention for this year? What would your intention look like if you express it visually?

May your upcoming year be filled with joy, growth, and creativity. 

Heart Chakra Mandala Sara Roizen

Heart Chakra Mandala
Sara Roizen

Gratitude Mandalas

Gratitude Mandala ~ Sara Roizen

Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.    ~ Rumi

Yesterday I caught myself complaining again as I attacked the mountain of dishes in the sink and tried to clear away the fog from my bleary eyes and brain. Clearly, my morning cup of coffee had not kicked in yet. As I let out an audible groan, my husband and toddler both glanced at me from their respective spots in the kitchen.

My husband is a bit of a Zen master – or at least that’s what I’ve dubbed him. It comes naturally to him. When he’s confronted with a mountain of dishes (or a mountain of anything) he tends to just dive in and deal with what’s in front of him without much of a complaint. He figures that ‘it is what it is’ and groaning about it won’t make things any easier. He often accepts things for what they are and simply takes action.

I’m a fairly positive person by nature, but I’m inclined to be a bit more all over the emotional landscape in comparison. During my tougher moments, my live-in Zen master (husband) usually has a jewel of wisdom. Below is a snippet of our conversation from the morning mentioned above:

Me: UGH. There is always a mountain of dishes for us in the sink, laundry piling up, and just so much to do. It’s not even 8:30am and I’m ready for bed. This is pointless. I feel so overwhelmed by the day already.

Live-in Zen Master: I know. It’s frustrating. There are a ton of dishes, and laundry, and things for both of us to do today.

Me: (Suspicious side glance. Lets out tiny huff and relaxes shoulders somewhat.)

Live-in Zen Master: But to put it into perspective – look around for a minute. At our house, our children, and the beautiful view out our window. Ya know, life is pretty good and there’s a lot to be grateful for.

Me: Yeah. You’re totally right. There is a lot to be grateful for. I need to remind myself of that more often.

That morning’s conversation was a wonderful reminder for me. I realized that for the past few days I had been in a negative mindset for the most part. Every time something went wrong, my mind kept gathering additional evidence to support my negative thought. It’s hard sometimes, seeing as how our brains are actually wired for a negativity bias. Psychologist Rick Hanson describes the negativity bias in simple terms:

This bias developed because the ancient mammals, primates, and early humans that were all mellow and fearless did not notice the shadow overhead or slither nearby that CHOMP! killed them. The ones that survived to pass on their genes were nervous and cranky, and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain, armed with nuclear weapons.

Your brain is continually looking for bad news. As soon as it finds some, it fixates on it with tunnel vision, fast-tracks it into memory storage, and then reactivates it at the least hint of anything even vaguely similar. But good news gets a kind of neural shrug: “uh, whatever.”

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

The problem with the negativity bias is that we are no longer cavemen, but our brains haven’t quite realized that. Of course there are real threats in the world and things that our biological negativity bias is useful for. The issue is that our brains are stuck in negative overdrive most of the day without us even realizing it.

There are many ways to shift the brain from negative to positive. This will be a continued topic that I’ll keep exploring in future posts. Right now I want to focus on one of the simplest yet powerful methods I have found to increase positivity and overall wellbeing: cultivating gratitude. It is a seemingly simple yet powerful practice.  It is so simple that I have often overlooked the practice in the past. Gratitude is one of the topics that we spent the longest time exploring in my Happiness Art Therapy Group.

Sometimes gratitude comes completely naturally. When my children were born and placed in my arms I felt an indescribable sense of gratitude. It can also come in smaller everyday forms, such as gratitude for the cup of coffee in my hands that is warming my body and waking me up. Focusing on one thing that we are grateful for begins to open our hearts – gradually shifting us from our fear based negative thinking to a love based positive state. I have found that each new thing that I express gratitude for creates an even greater ripple effect.

Gratitude Mandalas
Creating gratitude mandalas takes the practice of gratitude to another beautiful level. All you need is a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. The mandalas in this post were created with white paint pens on black paper. I love the contrast of the white line work on the black paper. If you want more color, grab some colored pencils or watercolor paint and a fine brush. You can trace a circle or draw one freehand. If it helps, find the center of the circle and mark it in a way that serves as a visual centering point. Next, take some deep breaths and focus on relaxing your mind and body. Then, begin to write down anything that you feel gratitude for within the circle. Experiment with the direction of the writing, the size of the words, and the way they flow.

Your gratitude words can be something on a larger scale such as ‘my family’ or something seemingly mundane such as ‘the way dust motes dance in the light.’ Perhaps you can create multiple gratitude mandalas – some that focus on the broader categories, and some that celebrate all of the smaller things you feel grateful for. One of my gratitude mandalas (top of page) was created with small everyday things in mind and finding beauty in the mundane: piles of books, paint pens, podcasts, and lazy breakfasts. I wrote things down in a stream of consciousness without editing my words or overthinking them.

A few days later I created another gratitude mandala (image below). Instead of using words, I

Gratitude Mandala Sara Roizen

Gratitude Mandala
Sara Roizen

silently meditated on the things that I am grateful for as I began to draw. The mandala is a visual representation of the gratitude I felt that day. This is an example of creating art while holding a specific intention of gratitude. To me, this mandala looks like it is expanding outwards – which is exactly how my heart felt while I was creating it.

I will share some more art therapy ideas for cultivating gratitude in future posts. In the meantime, create some of your own gratitude mandalas and feel free to share them here!

Explore the practice of gratitude more:

Gratefulness.org
A beautiful and inspiring site entirely devoted to cultivating and practicing gratitude.

NY Times Article: Choose To Be Grateful: It Will Make You Happier
This article really resonated with me and hopefully with you too!

Greater Good Berkeley – A collection of articles about gratitude
A nice listing of various articles related to gratitude.

Positive Art Therapy: Art Therapist Janet McLeod
This is Janet McLeod’s art therapy site and it is full of interesting interviews with other art therapists. The focus is on the integration of Positive Psychology & Art Therapy and there are many posts pertaining to weaving gratefulness into art therapy practice.

Small Works Show

'Off Center' Sara Roizen wood burned mandala

‘Off Center’
Sara Roizen
wood burned mandala

Just a little art news!

Two of my new wood burned mandalas are part of the Annual Small Works Show at Porter Mill Studios in Beverly, MA.

All of the art in this show measures 12 inches or smaller. And my mandalas just qualify at exactly 12 inches in diameter.

I wrote about my love of wood burning a while back:

Life Without An Eraser (Or Why I Love Woodburning)

It feels wonderful to slowly be stepping back into the art community now that we have been living here in Massachusetts for a little over a year. It’s a vibrant and constantly evolving art scene and I’m excited to be a part of it.

If you’re in the area, stop by for live music, wine, and of course lots of art!
The reception coincides with the Holiday Open Studios at Porter Mill. Four floors and over 45 artists will have their studios open!

Porter Mill Studios
95 Rantoul Street
Beverly, MA

5th Annual Small Works Show
Main Gallery
Reception: 5pm

'Nine Seasons' Sara Roizen wood burning on maple

‘Nine Seasons’
Sara Roizen
wood burning on maple

Nature As Co-Therapist

Mandalas & nature collaborations

“The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Sun streaming through red, orange, and yellow leaves against a deep blue sky. A sketchbook stretched out in my lap. My baby taking a nap inside. This was how I spent an hour yesterday during one of the most beautiful New England Fall days I’ve seen in a while.

As I sat there utterly absorbed, I felt a sense of peace and fullness. I was outside by myself, but there was a palpable sense that the art materials and nature were my companions. Perhaps I briefly entered that ‘flow’ state, that has been described by writers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I describe flow as an experience where the individual is completely immersed and focused in the present experience. Although I think that flow can be experienced in many activities, it seems that creative and self-expressive pursuits lend themselves to this type of optimal focusing. For me there is a loss of self-absorption when I am in this state. As the quote above describes – it is an act of self-forgetfulness. Forgetting the self is no small feat – especially in this day and age.

I believe that forgetting ourselves for even a minute actually brings us closer to our truer selves. Spending time in nature and creating art in nature is one of the simplest yet most powerful ways I have found to let go.

In his book Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide To Letting Go, art therapist Shaun McNiff devotes a chapter to creative collaborations with environment and nature. McNiff’s own work draws deeply from observations and times spent in nature. He also encourages readers to explore directly making art with nature. Rocks, leaves, sticks, mud, and grass are all examples of nature’s raw art materials. McNiff writes:

“The deep satisfaction gained from this type of environmental art is related to an absence of possessiveness and self-consciousness. There is no thought given to taking something home with us. The creative act is pursued solely for its own sake within an ephemeral context. The virtues experienced by working directly with nature help us to create in a similar way when we are in the studio.”

In my personal art work I often incorporate rocks, found sea glass, and sand into my mixed media paintings. I have been inspired by my walks along the ocean and the dynamic and ever changing relationship between the water and the land. I will often embed the natural elements into layers of texture mediums and I utilize palette knives and layers of color in my process. In my recent drawings, I keep returning to the wave motif and imagery. The swirling eddies and crests of the ocean provide constant fluid ideas.

From the Sandstone Series Sara Roizen acrylic, molding paste, sand, rock, & sea glass on canvas

From the Sandstone Series
Sara Roizen
acrylic, molding paste, sand, rock, & sea glass on canvas


Art Therapy & Nature

I have brought many of my art therapy groups outside when the weather allowed for it. At one of the supportive housing locations in Brooklyn, the veterans that lived there had a beautiful back yard that included seating, a community garden, and even a mama cat and her kittens that were being cared for by the residents. No matter what emotional state the group members were in, being outside immediately provided an expansive yet relaxed quality to the group. I was always amazed to observe as everyone’s body postures shifted from guarded and hunched over to reclining and letting shoulders drop as we made art and talked. At other shelters and housing facilities there was not a space outside to create art in, or the neighborhood was not safe enough to provide a secure group environment outside. In these locations I found other ways to incorporate nature into my groups such as bringing in found natural objects such as rocks, sticks, and leaves. These pieces of nature became the inspiration for drawings and sculptures. Bringing simple house plants into the group and having members paint and decorate the pots was another way to bring nature in from the outside. Painting pots might sound overly simplistic, but it is the act of making something special and creating a unique container for nature that imbues the act with meaning. In addition, giving the clients a living plant to care for added another layer of meaning and ritual to their daily lives. The plant served as a transitional object that lived with them and bridged the days between each group.

During my art therapy work with chronically ill children, the children were not able to leave the hospital due to medical constraints. Being inside for a prolonged period of time is hard enough for adults, but even more challenging for children. Some of the children had not been able to go outside for months at a time due to extended stays. In addition, many of the children could not be given actual pieces from nature to work with because they could only use materials that had been sterilized and/or never used by someone else. With these patients I focused on the qualities of the weather and the seasons to help provide a sense of natural rhythms. We worked with collage imagery from nature and spoke about favorite seasons, activities based on the time of year, holidays, and related family rituals.

Fall leaf inspiration

Fall leaf inspiration

Collaborating With Nature

There are countless ways to collaborate with nature directly and indirectly. Here are some examples to get the inspiration flowing!

  • Collect smooth rocks and pebbles and create an outdoor stone mandala either individually or as a group process
  • Paint or draw on stones and leave them in different outdoor or indoor locations. Imagine the delight that these found stones might bring someone else as they are going about their busy day!
  • Trace leaves or found pieces from nature to create an overlapping abstracted drawing. Use black and bold lines to trace and then fill in each section with paint to create a stained-glass inspired piece.
  • Sit outside on a windy day with watercolor and paper and let your hand capture the feel of the wind or sit by a stream or the ocean and let the water current guide your own mark making.
  • Paint or draw directly on leaves. They can be used to collage with or coated with mod podge and incorporated into a mobile.
  • Collaborate with a garden and create small (or large) sculptures to place throughout the garden. You can also place figurines and other small found objects around the garden and create an ever-changing scene. This could be a wonderful process to explore with children as well.
  • Trace shadows from overhanging tree branches and plants by sitting directly under a tree on a bright day. The shadows create beautiful, intricate, and abstract patterns.
  • Gather natural objects from outside and bring them inside to create a small altar in your home. The altar can change seasonally and as new materials are found and added.
  • For those of us living in areas that get snow in the winter – an obvious idea is to sculpt with snow! Adding sticks, pinecones, and other materials adds another dimension to the snow.

This is a rich topic and I will continue to explore the integration of nature, art, and art therapy in future posts. In the meantime, here are a few links that might interest you as well.

Faith Evans-Sills creates striking mandalas using nature:
Faith Evans-Sills Mandalas

Art therapist Amy Maricle’s post on utilizing nature for anxiety relief:
Mindful Art Studio

Jason deCaires Taylor creates incredible underwater sculptures that continuously morph as animals, coral, and other sea life interact with them:
Underwater Sculpture

Andy Goldsworthy is famous for his amazing direct collaborations with nature:
Andy Goldsworthy

Artist Nils Udo also utilizes the earth and elements of nature to create evocative work:
Nils Udo

Artist & art therapist Hannah Klaus Hunter incorporates leaves and pieces of nature into her rich and layered monoprints:
Hannah Klaus Hunter – The Shift Series

ferns

Sara Roizen – fern drawing

Back To Blogging – Because Imperfection Is Just Right

Meditating on change... Pen on paper Sara Roizen

Meditating on change…
Pen on paper
Sara Roizen

I’ve been on a little blogging hiatus here at Art Therapy Spot, but I’m diving back into it now!

My husband jokes that I use the word ‘whirlwind’ to describe this past year at least three times a day. So what has been swirling around in this supposed whirlwind?

A move from NYC to Massachusetts, the addition of a second child, figuring out where my art therapy path is taking me in my new home, and migrating my blog over from Blogger to WordPress (to list the biggies).

I was waiting to make the new blog go live after I had cleaned it up some more and settled on the new aesthetic and formatting. However I realized that this blog will continue to be a work in progress and in the meantime I had stopped writing altogether. I’m still learning WordPress and I have a feeling it might take a while to really master. That being said, it’s easy to get tripped up in the pursuit of an ideal version of a blog or anything for that matter. I reminded myself that I need to start where I am, which is of course, exactly here. I often write about the inherent beauty of imperfection. So, here’s an opportunity to practice what I preach!

Welcome to my new blog…a perfectly imperfect work in progress. But it’s in motion, like all good creative pursuits. I hope you accompany me on this evolving adventure and continue to gain inspiration and a sense of connection while you are here. Stay tuned for much more!

Art Therapy Interview: Amy Maricle

‘I love when conversations and energy just flow.
Not forced.
Not coerced. Just present.’
– Dau Voire

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of having artist and art therapist Amy Maricle over for an artist’s date.

We spent the day up in my studio talking about art, art therapy, our careers so far, being moms, and many other things. The day flew by and we are eagerly anticipating our next artist’s date.

I am inspired by Amy’s warmth, creativity, and experience in the field. Her interests and focus on mindfulness, spirituality, and client-centered collaboration resonate with me on a deep level.

During out time together we decided to interview one another so that our blog followers could get a taste of our conversation and hopefully draw some inspiration from it like we did.
Amy posted her interview with me recently on her blog:

Art Therapy Podcast: Sara Roizen

Now I’m excited to share my interview of Amy (audio below). Amy talked about the path that led her to becoming an art therapist, what she loves about art therapy, and her experiences in private practice. I think that listeners will be especially interested to hear some of her tips and encouragement for anyone interested in taking the leap and starting a private practice.

To find out even more about Amy’s therapy work you can visit her site:

Amy Maricle Counseling ~ Foxboro Art Therapy

Be sure to enjoy her blog as well, which is packed with video tutorials, guided practices, and inspiration about creative self-care, managing anxiety, and many other topics.

Enjoy the interview and we’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!
:)

 

 

 

Art Therapy Podcast

‘A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.’ 
~ Paul Gardner

Like the painting that ‘simply stops in interesting places,’ my recent artist’s date and afternoon of conversation with art therapist Amy Maricle of Foxboro Art Therapy could have kept going on without ever feeling finished. There is just so much to talk about and share when it comes to our experiences as artists and art therapists.

We thought it could be interesting and inspiring to record part of our dialogue in order to share it with our readers. We took turns interviewing each other about our experiences as artists, art therapists, and what drew us to the field of art therapy. We are excited to continue meeting, collaborating, and hopefully sharing an ongoing open-ended conversation about the field.

Here is a link to Amy’s blog where you can listen to my interview:

Art Therapy Podcast ~ Sara Roizen: The Beauty of Being An Art Therapist

Please check back soon to read more about our artist’s date and hear Amy’s interview. I will be posting more in depth about our time together! In the meantime, enjoy exploring Amy’s blog and head over to her Facebook page to stay up to date with the latest posts, shared articles, and inspiration!

Site: Foxboro Art Therapy

Facebook: Maricle Counseling

 

Our art journals side by side ~ on their own artist date!

 

Removing Barriers in the Studio

A glimpse of my growing studio inspiration wall

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’
~ Rumi

This Rumi quote hangs to the right of the painting easel in my new studio. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it resonates on so many levels. For me, art is love expressing itself in visual form. Like love, the art needs to find a way out, but I am no stranger to building barriers within myself in unconscious attempts to slow the flow of art energy. I’ve written about this in many posts and find that it’s important to acknowledge the ebb and flow of my own creative process. It’s part of why I am able to sit with an art therapy client and nod understandingly while they list ten reasons for not wanting to make art that day. I get it. I really do. I also understand how deeply freeing it can be to acknowledge those barriers and then gently (or brazenly) push through them sometimes.

I’ve lived in many places and carved out areas to make art in all of them. Sometimes I’d set up at a kitchen table, a (slightly mildewy) basement, or on the floor of my bedroom. I took over the second bedroom in our Queens apartment for my studio for a number of years, until the birth of our first son. My fantasies about painting in the same room while he napped are amusing in retrospect. Still, I dutifully set up shop on our small kitchen table for a little while or worked on a smaller scale in my mandala journal while he crawled around next to me.

returning to my mandala journal

In September my family made the big move from NYC to the ‘burbs’ in Massachusetts. It’s an area that we know and love, with the ocean close by, trees, space, and a slightly slower pace of life. The transition was emotional for me, even though it was a change that I was craving. Transitions are always challenging. Each day took on a dream-like quality as I found myself busy with unpacking and getting oriented to our new home and area. In addition, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and a bit preoccupied with queasiness and fatigue!

One of the most amazing things about our new home is that I once again have a room that I can claim as my studio space. The attic was converted into a beautiful light filled room by the previous owners. It was the most amazing space I could imagine for a studio and yet I avoided it for a few months – even after the boxes of art supplies were unpacked and I could have started using it. I experienced a sense of guilt and also longing every time I contemplated heading upstairs to my studio. It was as if the space was too perfect for me to use. Perhaps a part of me was struggling to feel worthy enough to fully inhabit the studio. The litany of doubts and self-critical thoughts slowly marched throughout my head. This has been a pattern of mine for as long as I can remember. I put the barriers in place (as in the Rumi quote) and they are all of the reasons why art should not be a priority for me. Then, when the pain of being trapped behind those self-imposed barriers becomes too great, I get back to my art! A morning art-making session with an artist and art therapist that I recently met was exactly what I needed to start removing my art barriers again in our new home. We sat in the studio and just chatted while working on our own art projects. After she left, I spent the rest of the afternoon in my studio making art. It felt incredible. It was like coming home to myself.

a corner of my studio

In the first paragraph of Art Is A Way of Knowing, artist and art therapist Pat Allen writes:

‘Images take me apart; images put me back together again, new, enlarged, with breathing room. For twenty years I have kept a record of my inner life in images, paintings, drawings, and words – sometimes haphazardly, sometimes more diligently, but continuously throughout my days as an art student, art therapist, teacher, wife, mother, and artist. My existence was marginal, uncompelling, because my feelings, necessary for a sense of meaning, were missing. Art making is my way of bringing soul back into my life. Soul is the place where the messiness of life is tolerated, where feelings animate the narration of life, where story exists. Soul is the place where I am replenished and can experience both gardens and graveyards. Art is my way of knowing who I am.’

so much painting storage space!

Pat Allen’s description of the role of art in her life resonates with me. Art embraces the messiness and the beauty of our existence. It takes courage to sit in front of a blank canvas without the distractions of everyday life. I realized that part of me was afraid to sit down and provide space for all of the recent feelings and experiences to find their way out through the art. It seems easier to keep pushing them down sometimes. But the first brushstroke has a way of clearing the way for the next, and the next, and so on.

Today during my art therapy group at an assisted living facility we all sat before blank surfaces. The acrylic paint was already beginning to form a slight crust on top from sitting out in the air. I could feel some of the anxiety and hesitancy of the group members to begin, even though they had all come to my art therapy groups before. The familiar mantras at the beginning of group, ‘I’m not an artist,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘Does this look ok?’ I sit there and breathe in all of the insecurity. I encourage them to do the same. Then I say, ‘Let’s begin. Somewhere…anywhere. I promise you that brushstroke following brushstroke will lead you somewhere interesting.’ They begin and after an hour it suddenly seems like there isn’t enough time. Art has a way of suspending time, slowly drawing us away from self-critical thoughts, and revealing pieces of the self. I am inspired by the courage of my group members to trust me and the process enough to dive in each time. In turn, their willingness to create something from nothing has me heading back into my studio at the end of the day – eager to see where the art takes me.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one more inspirational quote. It’s about reframing our relationship to fear and a seemingly subtle shift in perception can make all the difference:

‘Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.’ (unknown)

So, what are you curious about today?

a new small painting in progress

The Art of Tantrums

‘Hungry Ghost II’ ~ Sara Roizen

 

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
~ Winston Churchill

I’m typing this as my crying and flailing (almost) 2 year old throws the fourth tantrum in a row this morning. I’m not even halfway through my cup of coffee.

I remember when he was an infant other parents would tell me, ‘enjoy this stage because before you know it he’ll be in the terrible twos.’ I would smile and commiserate about this future stage, but inwardly I would think smugly ‘not my son.’ Surely, there must be some children that skip this stage altogether and he could be one of them.

Zoom back to present moment. (Always good advice right?) I remember our pediatrician’s advice and our own recent method of working with tantrums.

1) Make sure he understands he’s safe and that I’m not leaving the room.
2) Go about my business as calmly as possible in his general vicinity.
3) When the tantrum eventually ends, continue doing whatever we were doing beforehand together without praising or scolding him.

There’s a lot about this way of approaching tantrums that made the object relations trained therapist in me protest. To oversimplify, the object relations psychoanalytic school of thought is based on the idea that our early experiences with caregivers (mom, dad, etc.) largely shape the way we develop and interact with the world and others. Our earliest interactions from infancy and into childhood impact the way we view situations throughout our lifetime and therefore impacts our behavior and relationships as adults. With this background in mind, I wondered if ignoring a tantrum would result in my son feeling invalidated and abandoned?

I had to do some inner searching based on my own experiences with tantrums. Perhaps I don’t fall to the floor kicking and screaming, but I have my own versions as an adult. I think about the times when indescribable anger, sadness, or hopelessness flood my entire being. These are the times that I cannot trace the experience to anything specific. It’s more like my entire body and mind is temporarily hijacked and I just have to ride it out for as long as it takes. It’s like a contraction during labor that seems like it will never end. You just have to be fully in it because there’s nowhere else to go. Whether it’s the pain of a contraction or the emotional pain of an emotional ‘tantrum’ – my experience has always been that I need to be with it alone. In fact, my husband, a friend, or any other well-meaning loved one can’t reach me during those times. I’ve had to learn this the long and hard way. All they can do is sit beside me or let me know they are nearby. When I’m ready, I know they are there. They are not invalidating my experience, but rather giving me the respect and psychic space for me to be in.

The often confusing distinction between a tantrum and a different type of emotional time becomes clearer with practice and observation. I am learning when my son truly needs me to step in with a hug, words, and more hands-on attention. During those moments, my interactions with him help rather than hurt. During a true tantrum, I am learning to give him the space and respect he needs to let those gigantic waves of feeling and energy out. Both ways of reacting are validating. One validates through closeness and respect, and the other validates his experience through space and respect.

 

‘Eye of the Storm’ ~ Sara Roizen

So how does my toddler’s temper tantrums relate to art therapy, mindfulness, and life in general? I think it is like this: We will all experience our own ‘tantrums.’ Our therapy clients will have them too. You know the client in the group that sits there with arms crossed and refuses to make art? Or the client that throws a cup of paint water across the room? (True story). They are speaking to you loud and clear and they deserve a form of validation. Often this might be me saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here and you don’t have to make art. We are happy to have you sit with us while we make art. Do what feels best for you today.’ Then I continue to lead the art therapy group. Or for the paint water throwing client – ‘wow, I see you’re feeling out of control right now. We need this group to remain safe for everyone. This staff person is going to bring you to the lobby where you can sit and feel safe alone for as long as you need. I will check in on you after group.’

These sound like overly simplistic scenarios or reactions, but in my experience the calm reaction is often so unexpected that it can be effective. Most of my past clients were not used to having the option for space. They were used to punitive actions and an escalation of emotions all around. Space can be a gift when given from a place of compassion and awareness. I think one of the hardest lessons for me as a therapist is remembering that my job is not to ‘fix’ anyone. I can’t micromanage how my clients feel. I can’t make them feel good about the art and work they are doing with me. I can’t take away their pain, anxiety, or any other feelings. That’s not what therapy is about. Sometimes therapy is about taking an active and engaging approach with my clients in the moment. Sometimes it’s about being the quiet and aware presence next to them while they rage. It’s trusting that deep down they have the ability to move through the emotional ‘tantrum’ and that fully experiencing these waves is actually healthy.

The end to my morning toddler tantrum story is that he did eventually stop flailing around on the floor and screaming. I sat reading on the couch. He walked over to the tissue box and then calmly handed me a tissue so that I could help wipe his nose. All of this as if nothing had happened. I marveled at his ability to experience such big feelings and was almost envious of the way he let them take over and then let them go completely. My little toddler Zen master…always testing my mindfulness and ability to sit with what is.

When framed that way, even a tantrum is a gift – even though unwrapping the gift isn’t always pleasant.

 

Inspiration vs. Stagnation

photo: Sara Roizen

“If I stay long enough in the studio, just stay with the work even if it doesn’t feel great or seem satisfying or directional or conclusive, if I just stay to tend and garden, then my mind gradually yields control to the more automatic labor of painting, and with that comes a sweet spot in the process further down, a worn groove, a sense of ease.”

– Anna Schuleit

Let me paint a picture for you. (And stop me if it sounds familiar):

You’ve been meaning to get back to your creative project. Perhaps it’s a painting you started months ago that is staring at you from across the room. A recipe you’ve been meaning to try but are a little intimidated by. Making a handmade thank you card for your great aunt. Planting some new flowers in your garden. Dusting off your vinyl collection and actually sitting down to listen to an entire album uninterrupted. Writing a blog post. (Is it obvious that I’m also writing about myself here?) 

Here are a few things that might happen instead of jumping right into that creative project:

– You hop on to Pinterest just to grab a little inspiration and 2 hours later realize you’re still following link after link and looking at other people’s amazing projects. Oh, and your toddler just woke up from a nap so no time today for art!

– You decide that the pile of dishes or the toys on the floor are the top priority in the next hour.

– You have a ‘to do’ list, but the thing you are most passionate about doing today somehow ended up at the bottom of the list.

– It seems like too much fuss to gather your art supplies (substitute writing supplies, gardening, cooking, or any other word) and so you switch on the TV to gather a half hour of mindless but (you suppose) relaxation.

I’m just describing a pattern that I often find myself in. And to be clear, none of the above behaviors are bad. For me, it’s more about balance and if I’m honest with myself I can tell when I’m in a period of stagnation brought about by procrastination. There is something to be said for slowing down and doing less. This happens with the seasons, especially here in the Northeast. Nature slows down right about now and with less daylight hours most of us go into mini-hibernations of our own. 

Of course there are cycles of intense creativity and productivity to balance these times of stagnation. However, it seems almost too easy to fall into a habit of not creating. Creating can be anything at all and I don’t place a time value on it. Sometimes it’s ten minutes of doodling or even creating a rock sculpture in the backyard with my son. Or it could be marching up to my studio, cracking open my paints, and facing that gigantic blank canvas in the corner. 

Paint galore…

The inner therapist in me is getting curious and wondering about my resistance to creating. It’s certainly a theme that I continually explore with my art therapy clients. I think there are different reasons that pop up depending on the situation. Some of my themes are: not feeling worthy of making the time and space to create, being intimidated by the process, and placing a higher value on getting other things (like chores) done. Creating can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. Sometimes I can almost delude myself into thinking that is true. But it’s not. I know this because if I am not making art or being creative in some way, my emotional and even physical self suffers. It doesn’t happen all at once, but I will gradually start to notice that something is ‘off.’ In my mind, it’s like taking a daily vitamin. You don’t realize how much it helps and also enhances your life until you stop taking it for a while. 

Getting back to my Pinterest example…
We all benefit from absorbing inspiration, whether it’s perusing Pinterest, taking a long walk, flipping through magazines, or strolling through a museum. The question is are we spending every second on gathering inspiration but avoiding getting down to our own creations? At this time in history we are surrounded by (and often bombarded) by a constant stream of images, opinions, and advertising. It seems to be increasingly difficult to unplug and go within. I will admit that when I’m in my studio I often feel an urge to hop into my iPhone and pull up a few more images for inspiration rather than sitting with myself in the uncertainty of creation. However, when I can sit in that uncomfortable place for a little while the anxiety is almost always replaced with excitement. It’s interesting how closely related anxiety and excitement can be isn’t it? The amount of energy that I am able to nurture and release when I make art is profound and deeply healing. All it takes is pushing past the stagnation. Doing that is simple, but not always easy. 

There is a humorous quote that many of us can probably relate to from Gene Fowler. He said about his creative process: “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

So while we’re on the subject of writing, here are four of my favorite books on nurturing and making space for our creative pursuits. Each book also addresses the obstacles to creating from a personal perspective. I hope that you check one or all of them out and let me know if they help spark your own creative process. Just remember – read a chapter at a time but create in between! :)

Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff
Art is a Way of Knowing, Pat B. Allen
Studio Art Therapy, Catherine Hyland Moon
Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland

Books to inspire your creative process