Artful Healing

Psychotherapists are finding the arts to be powerful vehicles for self-expression and healing.

This essay first appeared in "Soul Work: A Field Guide for Spiritual Seekers." It is reprinted here with permission of the authors.

A young woman moves silently across the floor on her hands and knees, then rises and slowly begins to stretch toward the ceiling, seemingly reaching for the skylight. Seated on the floor near her, a social worker watches, observing the details of the woman's movement for later discussion.

In another room, a psychologist encourages a middle-aged man to sing from the place in his body where he has chronic pain, to "give that pain a voice." Another counselor, working in group therapy, gives everyone in the group the same poem, which the group then acts out, finding movement, sounds, and words to elaborate on or embellish the poem's themes. At the close of the session, each group member writes his or her own lines of verse in response to what has been read.

Artists play with sound and silence.... Gods play with the universe. Children play with everything they can get their hands on.

All of these counselors have very different backgrounds and training. But they and many other contemporary therapists have one thing in common: a belief in the healing power of creativity and art. In fact, one of the fastest-growing areas in psychotherapy is the arts therapies, which are based on the idea that all human beings are endowed with the ability to unleash, examine, and transform their emotions through creative endeavor, be it painting, writing, dancing, or singing.

The emphasis in such therapies is not on producing a finished work of art--although that can happen--but rather on the process of expressing feelings and increasing self-awareness. This process is, as British psychiatrist Anthony Storr points out in "The Dynamics of Creativity," "that of the child at play." Many writers on the subject echo Storr. They insist that play is an integral element in creativity. One must be willing to try things one way, then another; to write two pages, then go back and excise one and a half. Stephen Nachmanovitch, who wrote a book on improvisation entitled "Free Play" sees play as "the taproot from which original art springs.... Artists play with sound and silence. Eros plays with lives. Gods play with the universe. Children play with everything they can get their hands on."

But creativity also involves discipline, and like any muscle in the body, our creative muscles need regular exercising. The more we exercise the stronger we get. Just as keeping a dream journal to record our nocturnal imaginal creations encourages our remembering more dreams in greater detail, so too if one sticks with a creative endeavor, progress is made--no matter whether we are cooking, writing, honing a craft, or singing. The trick is simply to reconnect with the imagination, the ground of creativity, and "go with the flow."

Contemporary psychotherapists are probing more and more into the realm where the arts deliver healing messages.

Despite the ambivalence of Sigmund Freud--whose attitude toward the function of the artist seemed to contain a blend of envy, awe, and distrust--contemporary psychotherapists are probing more and more into the realm where the arts deliver healing messages. In fact, art therapies are on the cutting edge of psychotherapy today. And the cutting edge of arts therapies is creative arts therapy, which combines art modalities. For example, dance therapists are incorporating painting into their sessions, poetry therapists have patients act out poems, and drama therapy now includes creating masks and other visual aides.

Peggy Heller, a registered poetry therapist and founder of the Poetry Therapy Training Institute in Potomac, Maryland, has found that people in crisis spontaneously begin to write. They write poetry, they start a journal. If clients know that their "words are welcome," they bring their writing into therapy. Other therapists have found that clients suffering from schizophrenia, which often leaves them unable to articulate their feelings verbally, respond well to dance therapy.

Making the symbolic language of the arts welcome in a therapeutic context gives both the therapist and the client opportunities for exploration not available in traditional talk therapy. Shaun McNiff, a pioneer in the field of creative arts therapy, uses drumming, vocal work, and movement in addition to painting when working in his studio with clients. "I believe that imagination is an interplay of intelligences.... We encourage imaginative expression by painting from the body. I drum and play other percussion instruments and encourage people to paint as they are dancing. They use both hands and realize that their expression is kinesthetic and dramatic as well as visual."

This blending of modalities, sometimes also called expressive art therapy or multimodal therapy, recognizes that people are multidimensional and sometimes require a combination of various creative approaches. Making the symbolic language of the arts welcome in a therapeutic context may be innovative, but it also makes sense. In bringing the process of art-making into the therapy room, contemporary expressive art therapists allow the psyche to express itself simply and directly: The hope is that after expression comes the release--and then the healing that Aristotle referred to so many centuries ago.
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Anne and Charles Simpkinson
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