The Art of Travel

Sainte Chapelle stained glass windows ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.   Henry Miller
My husband and I just returned from a week and a half adventure in Paris and Amsterdam. I had been to both places before a number of years ago, but felt that I was able to see the two cities with new eyes – as if I had never been before. 
While moving through the streets, cafes, museums, and historical sites I often felt as though I was walking through a dream. I couldn’t soak up enough of the cobblestone streets, the old architecture, and the way the modern life intersected and mingled with the history. At times I fought jet-lag and exhaustion from our seemingly endless walking, and I noticed that my moods were predictably unpredictable each day, with a kind of ebb and flow. This was not one of those relaxing-on-the-beach vacations and each day was packed. However my husband and I (as usual) found a wonderful balance to each day, with one or two sites/activities planned but surrounded by the unexpected and unplanned. If we were on our way to a museum and happened to get pulled down a medieval street for a few hours, that was just as it should be. 
Subway map drawing ~ Photo/Art: Sara Roizen
The opening quote for this post captured the essence of travel for me. It was less about the specific destination, and more about seeing with fresh child-like eyes. A wonderful effect of travel for me is coming home (in this case to NYC) and seeing my own city from a different perspective. My husband is a photographer, and on his way to work yesterday he realized that he was looking at NYC with the eyes of a tourist and visually framing the various scenes that he would photograph if he had never been here before. They were sights that he passed by daily on his way to work, but had taken little notice of before. 
‘The Thinker’ at the Rodin Museum, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
In the past few days since being back I have been thinking a lot about how I can nurture this fresh way of seeing. I began thinking about the Zen concept of ‘beginner’s mind’ and how I could apply this to my days. One way of slowing down to see things is to draw, paint, or photograph them. To sit down for any length of time in front of an object or scene and really sketch is an automatic way of seeing it more closely.

I also thought about a Julie Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. I read it years ago, and one of the main prompts that has stayed with me is what Cameron calls ‘the artist’s date.’ An artist’s date is a time you have set aside for yourself (ideally at least once a week) when you do something by yourself and for yourself that delights the inner child and artist within. It does not have to be art related per se, but anything the inspires you and pushes you to try or see something new. It does not have to be time consuming, expensive, or elaborate and for that matter you don’t necessarily have to leave home each time. For example, you could create a small sculpture that is made entirely from recycled items, peruse a used book store and grab a few books that entice you, or sit quietly in a cafe with a type of tea you have never tried before.

The choices are endless, and so are the opportunities to see each day with the eyes of a traveler…even without leaving home.
Notre Dame, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Adam soaking up the Louvre with his camera ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Sacre Coeur, Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Amsterdam ~ Photo: Sara Roizen
Ferris wheel in Paris ~ Photo: Sara Roizen

The Little Moments

Photo: Sara Roizen

“The little things? The little moments?
  They aren’t little.”
   – Jon Kabat-Zinn                                        

Today on the 5 train (headed to the Bronx) a man with an orange sharpie and a pad of paper drew a quick sketch of me. When finished he held it up to share. The drawing was expressive and almost abstract with lots of energy and attention paid to detail.

He kept repeating this drawing gesture with different people on the train. Each time he held a drawing up he would make eye contact with the subject of his drawing and smile. I began to notice that my fellow passengers couldn’t help but smile back after a few seconds. Soon people became eager to figure out who he was drawing next and became engaged in that connection as well.

The simple act of sketching someone’s portrait became a way of slowing down and taking the time to really see another person – in this case, a train full of strangers who had been previously isolated in their own private worlds. How beautiful.

Mind the Gap

It’s interesting how life can gently provide us with daily reminders. The types of reminders I’m thinking about are the ones that serve to bring us back into the present moment, and find us looking at something familiar with new eyes. 
Living in NYC, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of city life. For that matter, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily routine and frustrations no matter where you live! A few weeks ago I was standing on a crowded subway platform and waiting to board a train. As I got pushed aside, stepped on, and bumped into I felt my annoyance surface. I glanced down at my feet (in reaction to being stepped on) and something caught my attention. On the subway platform was a painted message to “Mind the Gap.”

I found my mind pausing (just for a moment perhaps) as I pondered this rather straight forward instruction. Sure, there was the obvious message here…watch where you walk, so that you don’t end up tripping on or getting your foot caught in the gap between platform and train! But that wasn’t why I had suddenly paused. These 3 words had gotten me to actually pause and breathe in the midst of a familiar crowded commute. It would be inaccurate to say that my pause encouraged my fellow commuters to pause. In fact, my stopping for a moment caused a few annoyed people to jostle me in an attempt to (I can only imagine) walk through me. Their actions were predictable, however in that moment, my reaction to their behavior was different. My own reaction changed. Instead of pushing back, I let myself melt into the flow of passengers into the train. I might have even managed to smile at a face of two as I took up temporary residence in a corner of the train.
While writing this, one of my favorite quotes came to mind and I share it here:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. 
   – Victor Frankl

To me this quote points to one of the foundations of mindful living. We cannot control the behavior, feelings, or reactions of anyone else. However, we always have at least a split second between their action and our reaction. That small amount of time is the space between “stimulus and response” that Frankl refers to. I often talk about this idea with my therapy clients, and remind myself daily of the same thing. We frequently feel propelled by years of social and emotional conditioning to continue in the same familiar patterns and ways of responding to people and situations. Perhaps our patterns are so embedded that we are not even aware of the element of choice in any given moment.

In terms of art making, think of it this way. When you begin a painting (staring at a blank canvas) there are countless possibilities available. You can choose any brush in your collection, any color of paint, any type of mark making, any theme, style, technique. In each interaction you have with that surface and the materials, you are making an actual choice. When we are deeply engaged in the process, we might not be aware that we are constantly making choices because we are so immersed in the process. However, we are making choices every moment of the day. Why not harness this creative power, and try to imbue our days with a little more consciousness as we “mind the gap”?

Ink Painting & Art Therapy

Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
“Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.”
     ~ Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)
These are a few recent ink paintings on paper that I have created. I started this series during one of my open studio groups, after being inspired by a group member and his ink paintings.

The technique I have been using is “wet on wet” and is commonly used with watercolor and ink painting. You begin by doing a light water wash (spreading water over your surface with a larger brush) and then add your pigment (paint or ink) to the paper while the wash is still wet. You can wet the entire page before adding paint/ink, or you can only saturate certain areas of the page, which is what I have been experimenting with for the most part. As soon as you drop or apply the ink to the paper, it bleeds across the page as it follows the water. In some ways you can predict the way the color will flow, and in other ways you can’t! You can blow gently on the water pools to coax them in certain directions, or you can even move the paper around to move the water/ink. Experiment with the “blotting” technique, where you gently dab a paper towel, cloth, or sponge to the paper, which lifts off some of the pigment and water. This creates interesting textures and can add depth to the painting.

Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Ink Painting as Art Therapy
Last week, I used this technique in two of my art therapy groups at work. I gave a brief demo of the wet on wet technique, and provided my group with canvas paper, watercolor (metallic colored!), high pigment liquid watercolor, and of course water. I encouraged them to experiment with the technique, and not think too much about creating a finished art piece. Instead, I asked them to see what happens when they added more or less water, more or less color, moved the piece around, blotted it, etc.

While painting in group, we processed how this art technique can be related to life. Many of my group members shared that they had a difficult time “letting go” in general, and getting out of their own way at times. When I asked them to explore where that fear might be coming from, one of the basic themes that kept emerging was the idea of “trust” and how so many of my group members had not learned to trust others or themselves after years of trauma and negative experiences. Therefore, the process of letting go was often difficult for them, since they had no basis for trusting that things would work out if they were not in tight control.

After creating the paintings, group members shared how pleasantly surprised they had been at the way their pieces had come out. They were also surprised by the fact that they had been able (for that entire hour) to let go of the finished result, and simply enjoy the process of exploration. A few members expressed how much easier life might be if they could apply this way of painting to their way of interacting in the world. As we ended the group, I encouraged each person to think about one area (outside of group) where they could try on a more relaxed and open perspective, whether it was just smiling at the annoying person on the crowded train, or enjoying their next meal in a more deliberate and slow manner.
Finally, a short quote for you to contemplate:
“Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.”
~Bill Watterson~
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011
Sara Roizen ~ ink on paper ~ 2011

Playing Small

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
 ~ Marianne Williamson


What would you differently if you fully trusted in yourself? How do you shrink yourself in daily life, to fit more easily into others roles for you? Where is the middle path, between trusting in yourself and making ample room for the viewpoints of another?
I don’t have concrete answers to these questions, however I think they are important questions for us to ask. One of the most powerful ways that we can let the inner light out is by engaging in the creative process – through writing, making music, movement, and art making. When we allow our voice to emerge through the creation of something, we are no longer “playing small.” What are some ways that you can manifest your own creative energy in everyday life? Here are a few simple ideas I’ve come up with to get you started:

1. turn off the t.v. for a while and pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read on a subject you know little about
2. plant an herb garden and if you don’t have space outside, find a corner of your apartment and bring in potted herbs
3. desgin a cardboard fort for your pet (or yourself!)
4. recycle old magazines, but before you do – go through each page and cut/tear out images that grab you and create a pile for a future collages
5. if you take the train to work, get off at a different stop than usual and explore a new neighborhood on your walk home from work
6. take a picture a day for a month using your phone or regular camera and create a visual journal of all the images at the end of the month
7. personalize and decorate your work space with pictures and objects that inspire you and energize your space
8. create your personal “bucket list” and have fun with it…are there any items on the list that you could take steps towards now?
9. create an altered book: go to a used book store and buy a cheap picture book that appeals to you and make it your own by altering the pages with collage, painting, drawing, cutting, and anything else you can think of
10. listen to a genre of music that you hardly ever listen to, or that new artist that you’ve been meaning to check out
11. make a mix cd or ipod playlist for each of your friends
12. make a random video with your phone or camera that tells a story without words
13. rearrange the art on your walls to change up the energy and aesthetics of your space
14. buy yourself a candle or incense that you are immediately attracted to in the store and make a ritual of lighting it each evening when you get home from work
15. sign up for a workshop, event, or class that appeals to your creativity and current interests, and pushes you slightly outside of your comfort zone 🙂

What are some other ways that you have infused your day with creativity?

Art Therapy and Anger

 “Seeing Red” ~ Sara Roizen

“Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”  – Aristotle

The other day one of my therapy clients asked me if I ever got angry, because she could just not imagine me ever becoming angry. 

I asked my client what she thought before answering (I know…typical therapist response!) But it was important to explore her perception of anger before jumping in with my own answer. Although she could not picture me becoming angry, she guessed that I must get angry once in a while. As the session progressed we had a very interesting dialogue about different types of anger and how it felt, what triggered anger, and ways of handling that type of emotion. And yes, I did eventually answer her question by responding, “Of course I get angry…more frequently than you might imagine. We are all works in progress, and anger in and of itself is not a “bad” emotion. It is what we do with that energy that matters.”

Graffiti Art by Banksy

Anger does not have to become a problem for us. At its core, anger is a pure emotion. So is depression, anxiety, or any other negatively labeled emotion you can think of. In fact, pure anger can be useful. It can make us aware that something is off, or doesn’t feel right at the moment. When harnessed properly, anger can motivate us to make positive changes in our lives. Sometimes things go unchanged in the world because we haven’t become angry enough to take action.

Anger may become an issue if it is not properly acknowledged and explored. Unconscious anger has the potential to harm us or those around us. 
Self – Portrait by Edith Kramer
There seem to be 2 basic ways that people deal with their anger. The most obvious way of dealing with anger is to act out: either physically, verbally, or both. The other way of dealing with anger is to turn it inwards. You may have heard of the idea that depression is actually anger turned inwards towards the self. There is a third way of handling anger, and that is the method that I will be exploring a bit here. The third way of handling anger is to transform the anger into something creative and/or productive. The art therapist pioneer Edith Kramer called the artistic transformation of unacceptable thoughts and urges sublimation.
There are countless methods for exploring and transforming anger in art therapy. Below I have listed a few art therapy experiences that some of my clients have found helpful and transformative. 
Clay Work
Clay is a powerful artistic medium and can evoke many strong feelings by itself. For this reason, using clay with a client should be thought out beforehand and never done in a haphazard way. Clay can bring up primitive feelings and can cause people to regress during a session. This can be a wonderful thing, but the art therapist needs to be mindful of the therapeutic “container” and make sure that the client feels safe. Making cleaning up and washing up into a closing session ritual can also help to contain the energy of the session within the room, so that it does not follow the client home! I have had clients pound on a ball of clay, throw it onto the table, jab holes into it, and twist it into different shapes. Once the physical need to discharge angry energy has settled a bit, the client may wish to create something from the clay (or not). The process of working with the clay can be therapeutic all by itself, even if no recognizable form is created during the session. 
Torn-up Collage
Tissue paper collage

The physical act of ripping up paper or magazines is another way of working with the energy of anger (instead of against it).Try colorful tissue paper, rice paper, newspaper, magazines, construction paper, or decorative paper. Another step that can be added is to write down all of your angry thoughts on paper and then tear up the pieces of paper. In order to transform the pieces into a new art form (sublimation) you can create a collage with the pieces. I like working with “mod podge” as my adhesive instead of glue sticks, because you can lay down many pieces of paper at once and work more quickly. 

Leaves on a Stream

There is a wonderful meditation visualization that I often use when feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and intense emotions. Imagine that you are sitting alone by a stream or river. Next, imagine that each of your thoughts is carried by a single leaf on the stream. As you sit by the stream, picture your thoughts floating by you and disappearing down the stream. This visualization can be particularly useful when strong feelings of anger emerge. If you are fortunate enough to actually live by a body of water you can actually practice this meditation with real leaves. Gather leaves from the ground and write on them, using a permanent marker. Once you have a pile of your “thoughts,” release them one at a time and watch as the river or stream carries them away. This experiential can be done without an actual stream or river as well. Using watercolor pencils, write your thoughts onto cut-outs of leaves on white paper. When your leaves are finished, submerge the leaves in a bowl of water and watch as the watercolor pencil writing blurs and then dissolves!

These art therapy ideas for working with anger are just a few possibilities. I’d love to hear from readers about any other ideas that you have explored!

The Mind is Like the Ocean

Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

I recently attended a 2 day workshop called The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. The workshop was led by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel. It was an incredible 2 day event and was attended by about 750 people – the majority of us in the healthcare and therapy field. Over the 2 days we explored many subjects through dialogue and direct meditation experiences. I have been meaning to write some posts about this event since it happened. However, I think that there was so much learning and new things to process that I felt a bit overwhelmed to be quite honest! (But it was overwhelmed in a good way – when you just have too many wonderful things you want to share, and don’t know where to start).

I am looking forward to sharing some of my experiences with readers in this post and continued blog posts. To begin with, here is a little information about the 2 presenters.

  • Jack Kornfield is a psychologist, ordained Buddhist monk, and expert in the integration of Buddhist psychology with Western psychology. If you are interested, visit his site at: Jack Kornfield
  • Dan Siegel MD is psychiatrist, mindfulness practitioner who has dedicated much of his life to researching interpersonal neurobiology and exploring the impact that mindfulness based practices has on the therapeutic relationship and the brain itself. You can find out more about his work at: Dr. Dan Siegel
Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

The mind is like the ocean. And deep in this ocean, beneath the surface, it’s calm and clear. And no matter what the surface conditions are, whether it’s flat or choppy or even a full gale storm, deep in the ocean it’s tranquil and serene. From the depth of the ocean you can look toward the surface and just notice the activity there, as in the mind, where from the depth of the mind you can look upward toward the waves, the brainwaves at the surface of your mind, where all that activity of mind, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories exist. You have the incredible opportunity to just observe those activities at the surface of your mind. 

– Dan Siegel, MD ~ The Mindful Brain
When I was little I used to sometimes worry about what happened to all of the fish and sea creatures during a big storm at sea. I pictured the boats and people on the surface being buffeted around by the huge waves and the torrential rain. At some point in my childhood, someone pointed out that the fish were actually safe during the storms. 
“Why?” I asked?
The reply was that the fish were safe because they lived deep under the surface of the ocean, where the chaos on the surface could not touch them.
(You can imagine how comforted I was by this newly found knowledge. Now I could focus my animal-loving attention on saving a different species of animals).

Perhaps this link to my childhood musings is part of what drew me to this particular visual metaphor. In the week since the workshop, I have often conjured up this vision of the ocean – beneath the surface. When I stop for a moment to do this, it automatically creates a space in between my experience and my reaction to that experience. This type of practice is what breaks the cycle of reactivity and “living on autopilot.” Try it out next time you find yourself in a very reactive state (whether anxious, angry, or just rushed). Picture yourself at the bottom of a deep blue ocean, looking up calmly at the ever-changing surface (of your mind). You may observe (and even laugh) at all of the activity on the surface. But the core of who you are resides in that still place.

Many mindfulness teachings and practices say exactly the same thing, only with different words. There are many different arrows pointing to consciousness and awareness, but they are all pointing towards the same center. 

Another arrow pointing to the center is art therapy and creativity development. Mindfulness based practices and art therapy (really, all of the creative arts therapies) are often a very natural and powerful integration of experiences. In more recent years they have been blended together more formally and referred to as Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT). 

Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

There are many specific approaches to art therapy and mindfulness practice. However there seem to be a few core similarities between the two based on my own experiences. In art therapy I encourage my client to focus on the process of creating art, rather than the finished product. In mindfulness practice we place our attention on the present moment; making space for whatever thoughts or feelings arise. In both practices, the emphasis is placed on experiencing the present moment in a non-judgmental way. A painting is not inherently charged with “good” or “bad” qualities. Rather, it is our own perceptions and thoughts about the art which will assign it ultimate meaning. Similarly, life experiences are not truly “good” or “bad,” but our thinking and interpretation places each experience into one of these categories. 

As Shakespeare wrote:

for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so
So the next time you are finishing a piece of art, music, writing, conversation, or a day at work – take a pause. Before you assign an objective thought about whether that experience was good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, just allow it to be itself for a moment. Don’t worry…your thoughts aren’t going anywhere. I promise they’ll still be there waiting for you when you get back. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Breathing Space

Photo: Adam Farber
I have been doing a 4 week long online mindfulness course. I would recommend this course for anyone who is looking for a simple way to bring more mindfulness into your everyday life. The course can be found here:  
The course combines elements of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). These techniques have been shown to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Mindfulness may mean many things to different people. I view mindfulness as a mind-body technique that allows us to increase awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. When we increase awareness of the present moment, we are able to relax our constant judgments and find more pleasure in “what is.”
Keep checking back for posts on more mindfulness-based techniques!
Below is a short and simple mindfulness practice that I want to share with readers. It is taken directly from the mindfulness course I mentioned above. I like this exercise because it can be done anywhere and at any time. Although it is called the “3 minute breathing space” it can be done in even less time if need be!

3 Minute Breathing Space
1) Acknowledging
 Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture. Then ask: ‘What’s going on with me at this moment? What thoughts, feelings and body sensations am I experiencing right now?
You could put your inner experience into words. For example, say in your mind, ‘A feeling of anger is arising’ or ‘self-critical thoughts are here’ or ‘my stomach is clenched and tense.’

2) Gathering

Gently bring your full attention to the breathing. Experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they follow one after the other.  It may help to note at the back of your mind ‘breathing in…breathing out’, or to count the breaths. Let the breath function as an anchor to bring you into the present and to help you tune into a state of awareness and stillness.

3) Expanding

Expand your awareness around the breathing to the whole body, and the space it takes up, as if your whole body is breathing. Especially take the breath to any discomfort, tension or resistance you experience, ‘breathing in’ to the sensations.  While breathing out, allow a sense of softening, opening, letting go. You can also say to yourself ‘It’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling.’ Include a sense of the space around you too. Hold everything in awareness. As best you can, bring this expanded awareness into the next moments of your day.

You might like to start using the three-minute breathing space in moments of stress, when you are troubled in thoughts or feelings. You can use it to step out of automatic pilot; to reconnect with the present moment and your own inner wisdom.

My note: This exercise also works very well when imagery is added to the first step. For example, in step one you might draw what the feeling or sensation looks like. A knot in the stomach that feels angry might be depicted by a red tangled-up mass of lines. Often, creating an image of the feelings and sensations helps us to become more aware of that specific state.

Podcasts to Check Out

I recently discovered 3 wonderful podcasts that I wanted to share with readers. There are so many free podcasts to choose from that at times it can be overwhelming! However, I feel that these particular podcasts are incredibly well done, articulate, interesting, and illuminating.

Shrink Rap Radio
Shrink Rap Radio

Tagline: “All the psychology you need to know and just enough to make you dangerous.” 

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. (“Dr. Dave”) is a psychologist and the host of this podcast. The podcast explores psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry in a way that both therapists and non-therapists can understand and appreciate. I was initially drawn to this podcast because Dr. Dave had done a series of interviews with therapists who utilize mindfulness in their approach and this is an area of great interest to me. Each podcast explores a theme through interviewing a specific expert in the field of psychology. Topics are rich and varied and have included: the neuroscience of meditation, the highly sensitive person, archetypal dream-work, Buddhist perspectives on psychotherapy, and creativity and the brain.
“Dr. Dave”
The Wise Counsel Podcast
This podcast is also hosted by Dr. Dave and explores similar topics to Shrink Rap Radio, but has an entirely different collection of interviews with mental health experts. Topics are diverse here as well, and the interviews explore multiple theoretical approaches to psychotherapy. I am particularly excited to listen to the interview with Marsha Linehan on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an interview with Natalie Goldberg on Expressive Arts Therapy, and the episode with Jeffrey Young on Schema Therapy.
Tara Brach
Tara Brach
Tara Brach is a psychologist and world-renowned expert and teacher of Buddhist Meditation. She has written a number of books, including: Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.
Her podcasts are recordings of talks and teachings that she has given over the years. She has a soothing voice and is incredibly articulate. She weaves stories and humor into her talks, which makes her teachings accessible and engaging.
I hope that you explore one or all of these podcasts! At the very least, they will make your daily commute much more bearable. I found myself strangely pleased when my train was delayed for a few minutes the other day…