Flower Mandalas

Flower Mandalas

On Spirituality, Literature and Healing: Tom Neufer Emswiler


Stained Glass, Toronto, Ontario
(Click here for a “mandalaized” view)
Tom Neufer Emswiler is a retired United Methodist minister who has been teaching courses in literature and spirituality. He speaks, here, of his background as a minister and his lifelong involvement with the arts, teaching, and spirituality.
Please tell us something of your background — what you do, where you are doing it, and anything else that you feel we ought to know about you?
I am a retired United Methodist minister who for 35 years served small, medium and large churches in Kansas and Illinois and two campus ministries at Illinois State and the University of Illinois. My wife is also an ordained United Methodist minister and we had the privilege of serving most of the time together in appointments. She is also now retired.
Since retirement I have been pursuing my interest in literature and spirituality by teaching a number of courses at our local Communiversity (a non-credit adult learning opportunity sponsored by the university YMCA. I also am now teaching a longer course in “The Short Story: A Pathway to Explore Spirituality” at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois. I have also led some discussion groups using short films that have spiritual dimensions. I LOVE retirement because it gives me much more time to read, listen to music and be with friends. My wife and I also do food delivery each month to needy people through our church, share regularly with a small group from our church and belong to a lively group who eat a meal together each week.
How did you get interested in the relation between faith and the arts and how long have you pursued this interest?
I have loved the arts from early childhood on. I was taking piano lessons before I was five. I majored in piano my first two years of college and then switched schools and majors and ended up with majors in English and Social Science with emphasis in Philosophy and Political Science. I then went on to do graduate work in Theology. After receiving my degree in theology I went on to another school to do an M.A. in preaching and communication theory. For my thesis I planned and tried out on several small groups a course in Teaching Theology through the use of contemporary short stories. I have continued to teach courses in this area whenever I could work them in at the various ministry settings where I served. I have always been impressed to see how well most people liked these experiences. They enjoyed reading good artistic short stories and grappling with their meanings together. They also liked sharing personal experiences triggered by these stories and also learning of some of the spiritual dimensions such stories may open up.
What is your background in writing and teaching?
I have taught wherever I served and that this teaching is actually picking up in retirement. In a couple of the churches where I served I was the minister of education. I have also written or co-written with my wife 10 books and had over 100 articles published in various magazines. My wife and I have had the privilege of leading workshops around the country on Inclusive Worship. I also edited an international journal on Christmas stamp collecting called the “Yule Log” for four years. I have just recently given up this responsibility.
In what ways are you working on these concerns right now?
Mostly through teaching, reading and thinking. I have not done a lot of writing for publication for several years.
Have you had personal experience in seeing how the arts help in healing?
The courses I have taught have all so far dealt more generally with spirituality and literature. I have not seen the physical healings that I have read about in some of the literature on healing through writing. I have seen psychological healing take place, however, in my courses.
What kinds of changes have you seen in your students?
Most of what I have seen has been improvement in attitude and a new degree of happiness. In one of my poetry courses I invited members of the class to share, if they wished, a poem they had written. One man, who had faced great tragedies in his life, wrote a poem filled with darkness and pain. I think he was genuinely helped by releasing some of this through his writing and sharing it with a small, caring group.
I’ve also experimented with using writing as a healing tool. Currently, I’m doing a group called “Memoirs of Addiction and Recovery,” in which the group members write about their experiences in recovery. Any plans to do a writing workshop oriented around spirituality?
I’m working up the courage to offer courses in Healing through Writing. I might even try an online course in this area after I have been through a couple of in-person ones. I may also try to produce a book in this area or in the broader area of Literature and Spirituality.
What suggestions do you have for Flower Mandalas blog readers who may want to form a reading or writing group of their own that deals with spirituality and literature?
One book that would be very helpful is How to Read a Poem…and Start a Poetry Circle, by Molly Peacock. This is a great book on how to read and understand poetry but it also includes a helpful chapter about starting a poetry circle. I taught a course using this book about a year ago and have a few extra new copies. If anybody wants one of these paperbacks, I would be glad to sell one to them for less than half price. Many of Peacocks’ suggestions would also work for forming a group studying short stories or novels and spirituality.
To find people who are interested in such a group talk with your friends, write an article for your local paper, and see about running a brief note in church newsletters. Also, you may be able to develop a short-term course on literature and spirituality to teach at an adult learning center in your area. You might even get modest pay for teaching such a group. Also, public libraries and larger bookstores are often happy to help get such groups formed and provide a place for them to meet.
What resources do you recommend in the area of healing and poetry and healing and creative writing?

  • Poetic Medicine: the Healing Art of Poem Making, by John Fox. There is a national organization of Poetry Therapists and you can find out about them by doing an internet search.
  • Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, by Louise DeSlvo. Louise has taught a university course in this area for some time and she shares how she does this and some of the amazing results she has experienced.
  • A Pen and a Path—Writing as a Spiritual Practice, by Sarah Stockton. I received this book as a gift and have not yet read it but it looks great and comes highly recommended.

What resources do you recommend in the area of spirituality and literature?

  • Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul, selected and introduced by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard. I LOVE this book. Wonderful, thoughtful, personal sharings by the editors and a great selection of poems.
  • Ten Poems to Set You Free, by Roger Housden. This is part of a series of “Ten Poems” books by Housden. All that I have read and taught have been most worthwhile. Great selection of poems and thoughtful, passionate commentary.
  • Listening for God, ed. by Paula J. Carlson & Peter S. Hawkins. Vols. 1, 2, 3, and 4, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2003. All these volumes are great and designed to be used with a small group. Great short story selections and commentary.
  • Faith Stories, by Michael C. Curtis, ed.
  • God Stories, by Michael C. Curtis, ed.
  • Angels and Awakenings—Stories of the Miraculous by Great Modern Writers, ed. by M. Cameron Grey.
  • A Celestial Omnibus—Short Fiction on Faith, edited by J.P. Maney and Tom Hazuka. I am teaching this text right now and really enjoying the short stories.

What works of literature have you found personally inspirational or healing, and how have they changed you?
All of the books I have just cited are answers to this question. I love literature and have been touched by many, many books over the years. In addition to the works cited I would list the Bible, poetry by Rumi, Emily Dickenson, and Mary Oliver and I could keep on listing books and authors for a long, long time.
Tom’s Beliefnet community profile:> SpiritSing
e-mail: Tom Neufer Emswiler
snail mail: Tom Neufer Emswiler, 4402 Doverbrook Dr., Champaign, IL 61822
Art, Healing, and Transformation group
Flower Mandalas Project group

© 2008, Tom Neufer Emswiler and David J. Bookbinder

It’s Already There


Dark to Light Suns (view larger image)
This post is not so much about art and healing/transformation, though art has played its part, but about the transformative power of the spiritual imagination.
About a year ago, I was stricken with a gastrointestinal bleed. By the time it was identified, I had already lost about two pints of blood, and I was also rapidly losing weight. Fourteen years before, a similar scenario had brought me within minutes of death. The present situation seemed serious to my physician and gastroenterologist and frightening to me. I underwent a battery of tests, beginning with simple ones — testing for occult blood, measuring hemoglobin and hematocrit counts — and, as the bleeding continued, endoscopy, colonoscopy, and an abdominal ultrasound..
Much to my surprise, the gastroenterologist had never mentioned the relatively benign explanations my physician had offered for my still-undiagnosed problem (bleeding polyp, anal fissure, hemorrhoids), and instead cited more serious conditions, a set of “C’s” including Celiac disease, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and the Big C, cancer. As each round of tests ruled out one set of damaged organs and by implication ruled in the remaining set, the problem area eventually narrowed to my small intestine, which could only be imaged, without surgery, by my swallowing a small camera known as a PillCam. The PillCam procedure required insurance company approval, and that took ten days.
Ten days is a long time to wait when you are bleeding internally.
In the interim, I found myself feverishly scanning the Internet for information on all the illnesses my gastroenterologist had mentioned, and for any other maladies that could explain my symptoms. Nothing I found was simple or likely to get better by itself. I fantasized about a repeat of the botched surgery I had undergone following my 1993 bleeding incident, imagined fatal outcomes, feared the unknown.
And then, with the help of a Buddhist friend’s intervention and an act of Imagination, I stopped fretting.
My friend e-mailed me a Buddhist verse on using wisdom and courage to deal with acceptance of sickness. It’s intention is to help us regard sickness, health, long life or early death as, equally, gifts from the Universe, all to be welcomed equally, all to be transmuted into service to other sentient beings. It is described as a way to transform suffering into enlightenment. Here it is:
I rely on you, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
Until I achieve enlightenment.
Please grant me enough wisdom and courage to be free from delusion.
If I am supposed to get sick, let me get sick,
And I’ll be happy.
May this sickness purify my negative karma
And the sickness of all sentient beings.
If I am supposed to be healed, let all my sickness and confusion be healed,
And I’ll be happy.
May all sentient beings be healed
And filled with happiness.
If I am supposed to die, let me die,
and I’ll be happy.
May all the delusion
And the causes of suffering beings die.
If I am supposed to live a long life, let me live a long life,
And I’ll be happy.
May my life be meaningful
In service to sentient beings.
If my life is to be cut short, let it be cut short,
And I’ll be happy.
May I and all others be free
From attachment and aversion.
The exhortation that introduced this verse instructed me to read it many times a day. I did so, and each time its effect was calming. The continued readings also had a cumulative effect. I stopped looking things up on the Internet. I returned to my work as a therapist. I began to make art again, a practice that has, for years, been soothing and healing. And I began to have a different relationship with time. “Whatever it is,” I found myself thinking about the damaged parts of my innards, “it’s already there.”
Whether I would live or die; whether I would get better by myself, with dramatic interventions, or not at all, was already out there in my future. Just as my diagnosis was out there, waiting for me to arrive, so was the impact of whatever they would find. I didn’t have to fret. I didn’t have to plan. I just had to move forward in time, until I arrived at the moment when my course of action was clear, and then move forward from there.
The idea that “it’s already there” has, since, become more general. When I think about relationships, the fates of people I love, the trajectory of my career as an artist or therapist, I am relaxed by the thought that it, too, is already there — that the seeds have been planted, the tendrils that will become the plants that will become the fields of flowers are already sprouting somewhere in the future, and that in that future they have already either found the nourishment they need, or they have not, and that in either case we will all arrive at our future and continue from there.
This is not pre-destination. This is not resignation to my fate. This is not just “que sera, sera.” This is something that, while I can’t fully explain it, feels like the most liberating realization I have ever had. It’s already there. I don’t need to fret about it. I don’t need to fuss and plan and push. I just need to live my life to the best of my ability, and, of the infinite possible futures, I will inevitably arrive at the one that is mine.
I can handle that.
Anxiety has, for me, always been about fearing what will be. Or, more precisely, it’s about the fear that I won’t be able to handle what is around the next bend. I still get anxious about this kind of thing. But since this “already there” realization, I often catch myself fretting and, instead, give myself a kind of grace. The grace that whatever situation I will encounter, I will handle. That I do not need to prepare for it. That I need, instead, to trust that when the moment arrives, I will be ready as, by virtue of the fact that I am still standing, I must have been ready for everything that has come before. It’s already there. It really is. All I have to do is keep putting one virtual foot in front of the other and I will arrive.
I already have.
More anon,
– David
It’s Already There
Art, Healing, and Transformation group
Flower Mandalas Project group

© 2008, David J. Bookbinder

Call for Healing/Transformative/Spiritual Art


Illustration from William Blake’s The Book of Job, “When the morning stars sang together…”

This is a call, to you from me, for art (in the broadest sense of the term — visual, literary, popular, 3-D, multimedia, musical, performing, etc.) that has strongly affected you in a healing, transformative, or spiritual way.

By way of example, I offer the image above, from the British Romantic poet William Blake’s The Book of Job. This book, as well as Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and some of his longer works, powerfully affected me when I was 18. Blake’s influence was, I think, the very beginning of a spiritual and artistic journey I’ve been on ever since that time.

This particular image depicts Blake’s vison of the fourfold human nature: Job and his family enclosed by clouds (the body), the Moon goddess Diana (the heart), the Sun god Apollo (the intellect), and above the clouds a choir of angels (the Divine Imagination). Body, heart, intellect, imagination.

At 18, I was a young engineering student at Cornell University. It was the autumn of 1969, an autumn of rock and roll, flower children, and, as well, of major protests against the Vietnam War. It was, for me, the beginning of my own fourfold exploration of what it truly means to be alive, and Blake played a big part in that exploration, pointing out for the first time that there was more to life, and to me, than science and reason. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell became a handbook of how to live differently, and his Book of Job a allegorical map for the arc of the life I believed I was to live, one in which my faith in my path would continuously be challenged, my losses would be great, and my eventual spiritual and artistic gains even greater.

Send me images, links, and personal descriptions of works of art that have affected you. You can add them directly to the discussion thread noted below or you can e-mail them to me and I’ll add them to the thread. Eventually, I’ll either post them on the Flower Mandalas blog or link to a web page I’ll create of art works that have affected this community, along with your descriptions of how these works of art have affected each of you.

Thanks! I’m looking forward to seeing what’s out there, and inside you.

More anon,

- David

David J. Bookbinder, LMHC


Call for Healing/Transformative/Spiritual Art discussion thread

Art, Healing, and Transformation group

Flower Mandalas Project group

© 2008, David J. Bookbinder

Cultivating Your Creative Self #1: An Invitation to Boldness



Howard Gardner describes the early years of our childhoods as the Golden Age of Creativity. He observes that a five to seven year old child “sings while drawing, dances while singing, tells stories while playing.” Some of us maintain this creative mode throughout our lifetimes, others discover it anew later in life, and still others have lost track of it but yearn for something missing. Much of what I do as a therapist and coach is aimed at helping people cultivate that creative mode, both in their overtly creative activities (making art of some kind) and in their envisioning and enacting their own lives. Quite often, the two go hand in hand, as rekindling the creative fire in us unleashes powerful, life-affirming energies. “Be bold,” Goethe once said, “and powerful forces will come to your aid.”

We are all artists at heart, whether we practice some form of expressive art form or hold our creativity in our dreams. The Cultivating Your Creative Self workshops I do use a deceptively simple set of techniques to help you imagine how you’d like your creative life to be, and then uses the power of the group to help you get there. Whether you are a practicing artist who senses you could do more with the work itself or with your artistic career, or someone who feels a creative itch you can’t quite scratch, or a hobbyist who wants art to take a more prominent place in your life, working through the process can help you envision what you’d like to be doing differently and get you moving in the right direction.

Here is one of those techniques.

Liked, Like, Might Like

One place to begin, if you have a sense that you’d like to be doing something that feels creative, is to make three lists:

- Everything you have ever Liked to do

- Everything you Like to do now

- Everything you Might Like to do

Spend some time with these concepts. Allocate some time each day, for three days in a row, to ponder and to jot down what occurs to you. Here are some prompts.

Liked to Do list:

Make the list as complete as you can. Let it include any work you’ve done, any hobbies, any recreational activities. Let it take in the various qualities of your interactions with friends, colleagues, family, strangers. Most important, let it call up your memories of childhood play: what was the most fun you had, both with others and when by yourself. Be detailed.

Like to Do list

Again, aim for completeness. Look at everything you do, and note the things that bring you pleasure, joy, excitement, or that simply occupy your positive attention.

Might Like to Do list:

Be outrageous. Let money, time, space, and perceived talent be no object. This is a place to daydream, to take imaginary chances (and chances in your imagination). Don’t leave anything out!

Once you have your lists, sift through them in your mind. It will help to share them with at least one other person and notice, as you talk about the items on the list, which ones make your heart give a little start, or your inner artist a flicker of recognition. You are on a mission, and these starts and flickers are the trail markers.

After you’ve identified the items on your lists that create those starts and flickers, think about what they have in common. Some, though probably not all, will fit relatively neatly into broad categories. For example, I used this exercise to help me figure out that psychotherapy and photography were where, if I were to focus on them, I would find my joy. Most of the items on my lists had something to do with seeing (literally or metaphorically) and helping others. Although it was a while before I translated these themes into becoming a therapist and to really embracing photography, this filtering process was a vital component in my own path to creative self-actualization.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

I’m happy to work with anyone who cares to, in the Art, Healing, and Transformation group, to sift through your lists and to see what emerges. Then we can take the next step on this adventure into cultivating your creative self.

Be bold!

More anon,

- David

David J. Bookbinder, LMHC


Cultivating Your Creative Self #1

Art, Healing, and Transformation group

Flower Mandalas Project group

© 2008, David J. Bookbinder

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