Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death and Legos

On Feb.2, 2014, (James Joyce’s Birthday), Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose. On that same day in the United States, about 99 other people also died of drug overdose.

This week in my practice, I had quite a few intense sessions with people, the kind of sessions that feel like they are of an existential matter, or an existential crisis. Talking people from the ledge, not necessarily people about to end their life immediately or go overdose, but people questioning their own life and its possible meaninglessness, feeling a lot of self loathing and worthlessness, or destroying their creative spirit with judgments, comparisons and criticisms. In about 9 sessions yesterday, I think Philip Hoffman’s death came up somehow in about 8 out of them and the morning before also in another session. What does his death represent besides a reminder of the deadliness of drug addiction and polysubstance and heroin abuse? It’s about recovery and finding yourself at a crossroads in your life, your shadow is beckoning you to eternal emotional pain and despair and a small shred of hope, a light in the distance, is still also there calling you away from the darkness. It’s about the work in most therapy, the goal being for the person to come to like him or herself more and hate him or herself less…

Some of these sessions went to a very blunt place where I pointed out, we all have what I see as 3 choices when faced with existential angst and self destructive thoughts about life being meaningless or ourselves being failures, worthless, whatever we make is not good, and being told positive things about ourselves makes us feel worse instead of better. So your choice is to end it now and be done with the endless suffering — what the BUddhists refer to as suffering due to addiction, attachment and delusion. The other is to kill yourself off symbolically and destroy your creative spirit and continue living the life of a deadened person; this choice involves giving up on yourself but continuing to appear to be alive but to be dead inside. Many have made this choice, a kind of circle of hell on earth, an acceptance of depression as part of everyday life. The other choice is the hardest for people who have been to the darkest part of their psyche and lived through it: the choice to awaken and emerge from the traps of addiction, delusion and attachment. All humans are at times addicted, deluded or attached. People wake up everyday and live through the day in such a state of mind. Addiction is not just to substances or gambling, sex, love, shopping, food or work, money, success, approval, anger, etc.

Delusion is not limited to humans wandering around in psychotic states. We are in delusion quite often in everyday life, when we do not observe what is really going on and enter a kind of state of ignorance.
“In the Mahayana tradition, two levels of ignorance (avidya) are identified. Dzigar Kongtrul explains:
There are two levels of ignorance: ignorance of the absolute, or the essential nature of phenomena, and the ignorance that prevents us from taking an accurate reading of the relative world. These two kinds of ignorance are like two kinds of thread: When they are tightly woven together, they are not easy to identify, yet they make up the fabric of delusion.
As a result of the first type of ignorance, we lack wisdom. Lacking an understanding of our true nature, we perceive that which is illusory and spacious to be solid and real. The second type of ignorance is the inability to clearly understand the laws of karma and interdependence, which then results in an inaccurate relationship to the world.” From Wikipedia

Carl Jung referred to this type of ignorance in terms of “attitudes”. When a person does not see clearly what is real, they take on an attitude or attach a kind of power to something that then renders it not real and the person continues to see it that way. We see this all the time with various kinds of simple realities. Your “boss” at work becomes more than a “boss”. A boss is someone who has the role of directing people who work for him or her and defining the tasks and roles of the people who work for him or her, but for many they attach more power to their boss and their boss becomes too powerful or their parent instead of simply their boss. We do this with all kinds of things. As an artist I have done this with a gallery or exhibition. My work gets rejected and for a while I live in a delusional state of mind in which this particular gallery and the “juror” who picked the work to go in the show and the work that was not admitted to the show become more than what they really are. I give them some kind of power to decide that I am a “bad artist”, “not good enough”, a “failure”. The gallery is one of probably millions and it is simply a place that payed someone to look through images of work submitted by artists and decide which to put in a particular show that would take place for about 30 days. When I let go of my delusions and attachments to this delusional idea of the gallery and juror of the show, I see the reality, and go back to doing what an artist does whether s/he gets in a show or not, creates art on a daily basis.

In reality, the gallery’s juror did not want any of ten images I emailed them to be in some show of theirs. I know these are ten of countless pieces I will continue to make. When I am not attached to my work being seen or to this gallery’s show, or even to a particular art work being good or bad or craving attention for my work or addicted to approval from the outside, I can be a relatively happy being who engages in the creative process for the sake of the process and my happiness is derived from the engagement with the materials and the process not with any product or result of a product. Because I have survived many of these rejections, each time I am quicker to be able to return to reality. Reality is always much simpler than the delusional or attached or addicted version of reality. In reality a glass of wine or a new dress is a material thing to enjoy but it does not have more power than that. Having a book published or a painting in a show or an award for a movie is a part of reality but cannot define a person. Exhibit A: Philip Seymour Hoffman, human who, given 46 years on earth, achieved a level of success, reknown, acclaim and material riches, as well as a family, and promise of more opportunities to hone his craft, gain more reknown and more enjoyment from his creativity as well as further fame and money, perhaps the joy of watching his children grow, that few ever come close to, he, who with all of thi,s was not able to escape the suffering that addiction brings to all who succomb.

Bringing us back to the choices and the therapeutic session sometimes taking on the conversation of existential dilemmas nobody escapes. Challenge is: can you wake up tomorrow and show up for life whatever it brings and be awake, not living in the past or some fantasy of the future moment? If you can do that, you will escape your own attachments to some definition of who you are, who you are supposed to be, who you expect yourself to be, your addictions to anything that seems like it will fill an empty hole, your delusions about your own reality and the people and other beings you encounter throughout your day. It’s an invitation to let go of your beliefs, your assumptions, your cravings, your attachments to outcomes and goals. As Marsha Linehan wrote: “The fundamental nature of reality is change and process rather than content or structure.” I found this quote, wrote it in my journal and shared it with about 4 patients in the course of my day, as I need to constantly remind myself of this truth; armed with this one small bit of wisdom about reality, you may save yourself from the terrible fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 99 other unknowns who died on Feb.2, 2014 in the USA of the same cause… as well as the countless people walking the earth, who have no awareness of their own suffering in the form of addiction, delusion or attachment…

The philosophy of playing legos, contributed by a five year old, to be explored in another post.

The Altered Book: A Great Project for In Session Art Therapy

When I was in graduate school for art therapy, I had never heard of an altered book or seen one, and certainly it did not come up in my “Materials” class. We did not get assigned any kind of Altered Book in any class, whereas now I am hearing from grad students that in some class or other, one of their assignments involves an altered book, which is usually assigned to do outside of class.

I think my first experience of an altered book may have been at the Outsider Art Fair. I distinctly remember going to this Fair years ago when it was always in the lovely Puck Building, which is still there, located on Lafayette near Houston St. in Soho, downtown NYC. In fact years before that, I had some of my graduate art therapy classes in the Puck Building and we organized the student art show on one of the floors of this building. It is certainly a beautiful building. The last time I was there for an art event was the comic book graphic novel fair a few years ago when I met one of my favorite graphic novel authors/artists, Lynda Barry. It must have been back in 2008 when she had just published this beautiful book about her art making process, called “What It Is”. Anyway I think I saw an altered book years before that encounter in the same building. It was made by a female outsider artist and I remember the book being very thick and beautiful and having a lot of glue on all the pages. It was very inspiring and I wish I could remember the artist and find a photo of it.

I made my first “altered book” years before that without knowing it was an “altered book”. It was not quite what we tend to think of these days when thinking of Altered Books. I took all the pages out of this strange pretty bad dramatic novel I did not read and altered the cover completely to the point where it was not recognizable as having been a book. I put a lot of plaster of paris on it and then mod podged tissue paper collage. Then I somehow found part of a cardboard box and attached the book to it so the top opened up as the cover. I think I used the pages to rip up and glue inside the box. I will take a photo of it. Strangely it was a gift for a close friend, but she was a close enough friend that she told me she found the box to be too disturbing to use or look at, so I took it to my studio, where it has been more appreciated! It inspired one person to make something like it with me, and she ended up taking a dislike to the project and left it with me when she left town after we went through her art that she had done in art therapy with me. I still have that rejeccted box in my studio as well. (It inspires me to write a whole post about “ugly” and “rejected” art work and how it is therapeutic in art therapy!)

More recently, a few years ago I stumbled on an online class about altered books, and in fact I have now taken 3 online classes about it, each class covering different aspects of the art making process involved in altering books. I have been making them with patients for a while now, and by making, I really mean inviting patients to try it out and see if they like it. The first part of the process involves the explanation of what it involves, which is, basically, you choose a book and then you can start anywhere in the book or with the cover or back cover and start picking art materials to use on the book. The first steps also often involve ripping out pages from the book, either to use in the book or to throw out. It is usually good to do this at the beginning as a way to give yourself permission to “alter” the book. We all have pretty fixed notions about the sacredness of books, which I think still exists despite the internet, reading on tablets and other devices, or perhaps, the tablets have made books seem even more precious. Jumping in to starting an altered book project requires a certain amount of adventurousness, ability to tolerate anxiety about the unkonwn and anxiety about trespassing a boundary and destroying something in some way in order to create something completely new. It also involves changing ones mind in framing the idea of that book, from something to be read and kept intact, to an object just like any other “found object” to transform and make your own through your own creative expression.

There are many different aspects to altered books as part of the art therapy session that are quite fascinating, so this post will only touch on the first part, the beginning. Once invited the interested patient will next be introduced to the random assortment of books I have to choose from and pick something that speaks to them to alter. Usually Hardback books are more inviting as it is easier to treat the cover like a canvas, but lately I have seen a few people pick soft cover books, becasue I have a few that are an interesting size, kind of square and with a lot of photos, and a cover that is more sturdy than the usual paperback. So far, nobody has decided to go home and pick out one of their own books. Part of this I think is the therapeutic value of taking a book that’s in my studio already taking up space as a book waiting to be chosen, so the process of accepting this odd art project is made easier as you are not “ruining” one of your own books. And I really have a strange random assortment of everything from dictionaries/thesauruses to cookbooks to spiritual meditation type books. Included is a thick hard back Italian novel and some other random novels as well as several books with pictures about fashion or the styles of certain decades. I have a travel guide. I had a guide for artists about materials and how to use them.

This aspect of rejection of the project that began when I made my own rejected “too intense” book box and then an “ugly” book box with a patient is a part of the altered book project. I have had a few people pick out a book and start altering it and then by the next session ask to shelve the project until “I’m in the mood for it. It’s too daunting right now.” The Altered Book will either be seen as a great container that is continually inviting or sometimes it represents being overwhelmed and unable to make any decisions about what to do, resulting in the project getting “shelved”. One of my patients started a first session very excited about all the varied materials I had, wanting to jump right into art therapy and got going very creatively with some book that she even worked on for the first few sessions. At some point I think she started cutting pieces out of the book to create a kind of box within the book, maybe even using an exacto knife. Then in the next session she declared she no longer wanted to work on it, was not in that “headspace” anymore and went to other forms of art making. She made great use of art therapy but never went back to the book until we were terminating and she fondly remembered it as her introduction to me and our work and I think decided to take it with her. The book project just functioned as a jumping in point.

Why do some people get excited to do an altered book in the first one or two sessions of trying it out and then run away from it, shelve it, reject it? Maybe when this happens it is because I, the art therapist, am actually more excited about it than the patient and have high expectations for it being a great kind of project for long term therapy. Perhaps for some people, there is too much commitment too early and they are not really ready for it.

The other interesting thing about doing Altered Books is when people do get invested in them and go back to them every session. Lately that has been happening, probably because a few people in my supervision group randomly chose to work on altered books without my prompting them. Two people have left the group with unfinished books they have taken with them. One person brought her own book to the group to alter with materials from the studio. So that energy of the altered book I really believe was “percolating” for a while in the studio. I had another rejected altered book started about a year ago in one session and then put aside. For a while I was not really focusing on altered books in the studio, just taking these classes and thinking once in a while about it, and learning more ways to approach the Altered Book.

At this moment, my studio feels filled with Altered Books! Like anything that grows in a garden on its own, it feels like this altered book contagion has just sprung up naturally. Just this week I introduced the altered book as an option to 2 patients who got excited about it, chose their books and jumped right in using different media. Last week I had started my own altered book project in the supervision group I facilitate, thinking that now that I have so many patients working on them, I want to do one at the same time. So I chose a book that is a guide to artist’s materials for artists. It was very exciting to imagine taking this book that divides up all the materials and methods and painstakingly describes how to achieve certain effects, and how to “properly” use the different materials and media and rip up the pages and paint on it and collage ripped pieces on to the pages to start the process of making it into a book I hope will be hard to guess exactly what it was even called or to have a vague sense when looking through my book that there are a lot of pictures of how to make art and art materials terms but nothing much else kept from the original book. Synchronicity abounds in doing altered books. For me it came when I opened the book and realized it had belonged to the friend who rejected my first book box project and returned the gift to me. Of course I ripped her name out of the book first.

Anyway, at this moment there are at least 8 altered book projects that have been just begun or are in the mid stages of alteration. If I actually count how many patients have started altered books recently, excluding the person from last year who has not expressed interest in going back to the project, it would be 7, so my guess was not far from wrong, as I am the 8th and then there are one or two people in supervision doing them.

The next post would raise the question: What helps a person stay with an altered book project and continue working on it regularly? and What is it about Altered Books that some people become “blocked” or lose interest after jumping in excitedly.

The one thing true of everyone is that the beginning, that first session of being invited to make one, choosing the book and jumping into it or onto the cover and starting right away to alter it is universally exciting and stimulating. I have only seen people be intrigued and excited when they begin this process. Some express having a weird feeling about “destroying” a book but when encouraged get past that feeling. The fascinating part of the Altered Book is after the initial excitement and embarking on this without a doubt long-term project, there is a moment of remaining with it and committing to it further through getting inside the book and getting going with paint, collage, mixed media, ripping out pages and getting one’s hands dirty. It seems to require about 3-4 sessions at least to determine if one is going to get “turned off” of the project and too overwhelmed, or further jumping in and committing more and more to it. Those who find it to be a kind of safe container stay with it. Leaving it with me in the studio is a big part of that process. I will hold on to their book until they come back to it, so they don’t have to see it for a week. It is very different to work on a long term art project whether it is because the work is very large and will take a long time to finish no matter what or the project by its very nature requires time invested. It is hard to work on a lot of pages at once, especially if you are using any kind of paint or ink. Anyway, leaving the book with me allows the creator to take a break from it and not have to look at it in between sessions. This seems to help the project to become a safe container and holding environment. Even with my own altered book, I decided to try out at first just working on it during the supervision group and leaving it alone, so I also take a week off from it, in order to further get into the experience of my patients and supervisees doing this kind of project…

To be continued…

Here are some photos from my own altered book which I have worked on in different situations, first started it in the supervision group I facilitate, then worked on it alongside several patients who are doing altered books as well as in my studio the other day when I added a kind if nest into the book…

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