Mindfulness and Art Therapy

I started writing this post a while ago and somehow two paragraphs got erased so I’m starting over again. Maybe it makes sense due to the topic. Computers can really test how mindful you are. Especially to be mindful about saving and backing up stuff but even more so to be able to let go of your attachment to your stuff when you lose data…

Anyway I randomly picked up a book about meditation by a Yoga/Buddhist meditation teacher and therapist. Michael Stone’s “Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.” He talks about replacing the word enlightenment with intimacy and realization with relationship. “Little by little, we step into our real life, the one that’s always been here, because the present always finds us in our bodies, even when we are lost.” (page 24) I pick this sentence because I can easily connect this idea to the art therapy process itself as a way to get back into our real lives and be in the here and now in our bodies. I think that is one of the connections between mindfulness and art therapy. The here and now of the therapy session is all about intimacy and relationship as well as connecting to our bodies.

Of course there are many moments in any kind of therapy where we disengage from our true self in the moment and fly off somewhere into stories about the past or predictions about the future. However, the process of art making in art therapy keeps us back in the here and now through the use of the art materials no matter what one chooses to make. There are those special moments in the session when a quietness settles into the room as I sit with a patient who is intently working on their art project. I have had a few rare patients who are mostly quiet throughout the session, for many different reasons. For some, this is their first experience of being at peace with themselves, of allowing for a calm being in the here and now, and slowing down to just be with the materials, me and the art making process. True healing can take place in these quiet moments of therapy. For people who have survived a lot of early childhood trauma of one kind or another, feeling safe enough to be in the room in the here and now and to be able to focus on something tangible and concrete like the art materials helps a lot with the process of letting go as well as being able to be in one’s body and not dissociate. The dissociation is a learned behavior that has worked for the person in the past as a way to get through times when they feel themselves shutting down due to overstimulation of some kind and overwhelming feelings as well. Slowly the act of making art in a safe space with a therapist as witness and collaborator of “the moment” can take the place of dissociation. Finding new methods to soothe oneself is a key part of the healing process for all of us.

However, the majority of the people I work with tend to talk during the art making process, and some choose just to talk with me and find the art making to be too scary or associate it with their insecurities and perfectionism and shame. So no matter how the session proceeds, there will still be these moments of real intimacy in the here and now, which is the stuff of mindfulness. With a few people I have been able to meditate with them for part of the session and then discuss what came up while they were attending to the breath and the body. Some take up my invitation to engage in making a mandala after meditation with me and then see what their energy looks like and what was going on for them during the meditation.

This author, Michael Stone, and others for that matter, like to refer to “failing” at meditation, the idea that you will of course fail at it and go off into your head and then witness that you “failed” and bring yourself back to the breath, the body, the moment. Especially people unfamiliar with the meditating process can be easily put off by the fact that they “can’t” do it because as soon as they start to focus on the breath they go off into their head and it’s too frustrating to constantly notice and bring oneself back to the breath. Many people mistakenly think that the object of meditation is to achieve some kind of special state of mind that they could never get to. A lot of meditation involves feeling uncomfortable and fidgety or spaced out and then having to bring oneself back into the room. I have done some walking meditation groups and have found the walking meditation to be very helpful with this. Just being able to stand up and focus on each step and be moving the body very slowly helps with awareness and being in the moment.

We are always waking up to ourselves and our bodies. Even powerful emotions can bring one into the here and now which explains why some people report that they cry at the end of a yoga class or some other meditative practice. Being in touch with the real feeling of love for those you are most intimate with only happens from time to time for most of us as we are mostly preoccupied with what we are doing, what we are going to do next or what already happened.

The art therapy process can involve many fluctuations between moments of awakening and then sort of going back to sleep and just talking around oneself. This can be more noticeable for people during the art making process that they “went off somewhere” and then became aware of coming back into the room. As therapists we are also mindful of when we tend to disappear or get into our heads or leave the room when with different people. And the moments when we awaken together with our patient are the most treasured moments that are usually what keeps us going in this very challenging kind of intimate relationship work…

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