The age old dynamic of spirituality versus organized religion… Another Book About It

If you’ve been waiting for a book on this topic, it seems like Harris has synthesized it all, and that his book is a mixture of memoir and non fiction, which in itself is an interesting genre (I found a great book about insects by a naturalist that did this mix well), but none if it will seem new to anyone who has dropped whatever organized religion or religions they were surrounded by in favor of spirituality as the more inclusive and non violent non excluding of parts of the human race which all religions love to do (we are right and the others are wrong. Therefore we will force every in else to believe what we believe or we will consider ourselves “chosen” in some way and better and more worthy than everyone else…) that the term “spirituality” embraces. Spirituality has become a slightly meaningless word, or maybe a word that gets thrown around a lot especially in opposition to “organized religion”, but I like to think of it as a combination of the ideas of mindfulness, which leads to appreciation of what is in and around you in the moment, and the practice of loving kindness towards all other beings, ultimately with the goal of not arranging people and beings in some kind of hierarchy of importance, which all religions seem to do. The bible is filled with stories of getting rid of groups of “bad people” and saving others, even killing innocent babies born to the wrong people. So many stories of wiping out lots of groups of people and starting anew with a few, the Noah story repeated endlessly. Genocide it turns out, in the bible, is practiced by the character “God”.

Before I go on into more related topics and meanderings, here is the link to the description of this book and quotes from it: The book is entitled “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/15/sam-harris-waking-up-spirituality/

Mindfulness is not religious; it works well with science as it involves the practice of basic detailed observation of the world around you, as well as observation of your own mind and noticing what your senses are perceiving. It also involves observing your own breathing and even your heartbeat, all of which are quite obviously agreed upon types of realities. You need believe in nothing to practice mindfulness. And not magically but probably due to something that occurs in the brain that neurologists will be able to explain, loving kindness towards other creatures will eventually follow mindfulness practice. It has already been well documented that empathy and compassion when practiced release some kind of endorphins and make the person practicing it feel good, which is why it has survived alongside human beings’ great interest in ways to destroy themselves and others and the planet. So science is taking an interest in certain topics that are also entertained by spirituality. If you go at it from the point of departure of spirituality, which could be defined as some kind of meaning seeking or meaning making that humans engage in and basically through the perspective of individual experience, basically engaging in mindfulness type activities, versus the scientists working on ways to map the brain and observe what goes on in the brain and rest of the body during mindfulness activities, you can choose to try to engage in the actual experience or in the observation of it and mapping of the brain. In some way those two activities do intersect, as the scientist who is mapping the brain is probably engaging in mindfulness while observing someone else’s brain engaged in it…

I am not sure about the mysterious connection between being more awake and aware of the world around you and your presence in the world with the practice of compassion and loving kindness. Harris describes the discovery of this kind of compassion towards all creatures as something he observes feeling after taking the drug exctasy. Luckily you are not required to take any drugs to feel this kind of equanimity mixed with compassion and a melting of the concept of self and others. Ironically, the practice if mindfulness will eventually take you there, but it’s a slower more annoying and boring path. Mind altering drugs have been documented as the quick ticket to this kind of awakening and awareness of really taking in the present moment and feeling your mind and consciousness expand. There are other documented ways to go this route by depriving the body of food and/or sleep or exercising to an extreme point of feeling this expansion at the expense of your health. People have starved themselves and stopped sleeping to achieve a mind altering state of consciousness, probably since the first humans were around, just like there have probably always been some kinds of substances like peyote, magic mushrooms, extasy, LSD found in nature that humans have ingested and noticed a mind altering state of consciousness experience.

Anyway, the cheap, challenging and not fun but healthy route to experiencing a real awakening to regular old reality is to practice disciplining the mind through mindfulness exercises which can range from simple meditation (following your breath, noticing when your mind has run away, returning to the breath) or meditation in action which simply involves being as aware as possible of your present environment and of your mind and body in the moment. According to this practice of “observe and describe”, you can really have a “spiritual” experience. Look at Harris’ words, which are similar to the new “Positive Psychology” and Psychology of Happiness that has become a flavor of the moment:

“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”

This is nothing new, it’s similar to what is said by Marsha Linehan in her writings and practice of DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which combines the dialectic of total acceptance as the route to change, and which has a big mindfulness portion as part of its “practice”, as DBT is ultimately a practice that is not limited to teaching people with BPD, but a practice that all of us can benefit from. If you read about the mindfulness aspect of DBT, it will probably sound a lot like what Harris is talking about, with more specific types of exercises to help the individual become more mindful and aware of self and environment. Ironically, by listening to our senses and perceptions in our minds, we are observing both what is in the present moment and what is going on in our minds in the present moment.

In the end, all of this stuff is very simple, but very difficult to achieve. Try, for example, testing your ability to experience time in the present. Unless you are very super aware of seconds, you will either be living faster or slower than real time. You start a stopwatch, or look at a second hand, then sit and wait until you think a minute has passed and check the stopwatch or second hand. Has a minute passed? Did you think it passed and only half a minute went by or did a minute go by and more? I knew I would be the former, as I am aware that my inner motor goes too fast, so when I first tried this, only half a minute had gone by, no surprise! You would think that as therapists we have a good sense of time, at least in 50 minute chunks, but it is not true!

Roald Dahl wrote a great story called “The Marvelous Story of Henry Sugar”, which is all about the use of extreme mindfulness and concentration exercises which he originates with yogis. In this story, you can see how this type of exercise can be used for personal gain versus for helping others. What is so great about this story, is that he captures how the practice of mindfulness type exercises leads to a natural change in a human from selfishness and obliviousness of others’ suffering to great compassion. He takes the character of Henry Sugar, who is wealthy, lazy, bored and completely oblivious of himself and the world around him, and transforms him. What is truly great is that Henry Sugar reads a story that convinces him to try the practice of yogic concentration in order to see through playing cards so as to win at the casinos and make money easily by in essence a kind of “cheating”; he spends many months training his eyes and mind to see through playing cards. Because he changes his actual daily experience from one of wealthy meaningless pursuits spent with other wealthy people, to spending a lot of time alone, meditating and focusing on the middle of the flame of a candle and then focusing on a playing card and concentrating for hours every day until he starts to be able to see through the cardboard of the card and see the number and suit.

As he is practicing this and becoming obsessed with spending his waking hours basically in yogic training, he is changing a lot more than his ability to focus and concentrate on a playing card. I was very excited when he was ready to go to the casino, to see if he would right away have a weird response to the casino and the people there, which of course he did, as he had a heightened sense of observation and taking in the present moment, so the world he had been used to inhabiting was now transformed into something he was observing from the outside. Even more excititng, once he had carefully won a lot of money but sometimes lost on purpose so as not to draw attention to himself, he noticed that he did not feel the way he had anticipated. He was almost disappointed, and definitely not that excited to go winning more wads of money for the fun of it. The rest of the story was splendid; in the morning he woke up and started throwing twenty pound notes on to the streets and caused a huge commotion. A police officer goes up to his apt. and has an interesting encounter with him, basically telling him he is causing a public nuisance and that this is a stupid careless way to give away money. It turns out the police officer himself grew up in an orphanage and suggests to Mr. Sugar that he give his money to an orphanage. The rest of the story involves Henry Sugar engaging in a focused plan to travel the world’s casinos, winning Black Jack with his yogic powers to see through cards and starting orphanages in every country with all of his winnings.

Besides the fact that this story with a story within the story, the story Henry randomly picks up and reads, is so well written and engaging, this is a great story about how the practice of mindfulness techniqhes leads naturally to compassion, and Dahl takes an extreme example of a very limited uninteresting, selfish uncaring man who becomes transformed by simply engaging in exercises of focus and concentration, simple exercises that require a lot of discipline and patience though, into a totally different compassionate and purposeful human being. There is some connection between midnfulness practice, compassion, and the experience of meaningfulness or “purpose driven” living. This explains how Marsha Linehan helped many extremely suicidal individuals with terrible BPD illness go from a state of constant emotional pain, self harming, suffering, suicide attempts, to not just being able to get through the day without engaging in unhealthy coping choices, but eventually transforming their lives and finding meaning beyond the terrible pain of their illness.

It seems that it is really true that the only way to overcome or go through suffering to something on the other side is to truly embrace the present moment and accept all that it contains, being in it while observing it as neutrally as possible. A whole new post could be devoted to the connection between finding a neutral position on the moment and self acceptance and acceptance of others…

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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The Pregnant Therapist, Continued: The “Recognition” Session

Finding Out About The Pregnancy: “Intrusion” in the Therapeutic Space
This post got so longwinded, I’m not sure what to do with it, so I will edit a few paragraphs, and save the rest for another post continuing this longwinded “pregnant” topic! At least it won’t take 9 months to write about it…
You are pregnant and in your office with your patient. There are now 3 heartbeats in the room.  Now, jump ahead to your fifth month. If your patients haven’t “guessed” yet about your pregnancy, this is the time in which you will have a lot of “pregnancy recognition” sessions and a few sessions where you might actually inform your patient about the pregnancy and help him/her prepare for the upcoming changes, such as your maternity leave.
In one of the books I mentioned in my last post, the authors remarked that there are many ways your patient may let you know that they have become aware of your pregnancy besides direct verbal comments asking if you are pregnant, including dreams and images, even discussion of the patient wanting or not wanting to have his or her own baby.
Sometimes a patient, usually a woman, will wait a few sessions to see if your belly is getting bigger, as many women are sensitive to body image and don’t want to make a big “mistake” and find out you have gained weight for some reason and are not pregnant. I’m sure this happens sometimes, as I’ve had a few patients tell me they get asked if they are pregnant, sometimes by strangers, and are not. (Not always people who are overweight, but nonetheless, an odd unpleasant experience no matter what you look like…) Of course this can be very wounding to a person and most of our patients are very careful not to hurt our feelings, especially if they already know what it feels like…
(Confidentiality note: these “stories” are made to be not identifiable, as I do not supply any identifying information beyond gender of the patient. In some cases where the gender is not important, I have changed that, but given the nature of pregnancy, often the reactions are different in women versus men, as well as children, teenagers, adults, older adults, etc…)
So by around five months into my pregnancy, I had to have the inevitable “Recognition” session with each patient. Each person reacted completely differently.
One person had discussed noticing it with another patient, a friend of his whom he saw once in a while, and the two discussed it and decided the one who noticed would say something so he did. I don’t remember much of that session as he was fairly honest about his feelings and reactions. Then the friend came for her own session and got distracted by focusing on feeling bad that she didn’t notice, and her friend did. This may have been a convenient way to avoid the real topic, but I pointed out that I actually saw her “not noticing” as a good sign. Given certain issues around boundaries she was grappling with, I observed that it was great she was able to be so focused on herself.
One patient had a very interesting reaction. As a woman with mother issues (just like the rest of us, who doesn’t have mother issues!) that were unresolved. ambivalent and complicated, she was overly sensitive to my being pregnant and told me she was very concerned that her own negative energy would “hurt” both me and the “baby”,even though I reassured her that this was not the case. She simply did not believe it and was convinced she was right. While I was on my leave, she communicated to me that she could not come back to therapy knowing I was a new mother and explained as thoroughly as possible the issues this knowledge was triggering and not wanting to process them with me despite encouragement…This is an example of a patient who cannot be comfortable during but also after the pregnancy, as opposed to the majority of patients who do return to therapy with their now mother therapist. Quite a few young female patients openly admitted to feeling a discomfort in the sessions and being very aware of my body changing from week to week. One person expressed this through chronic lateness to the sessions and had no interest in exploring the connection to my pregnancy… Of course I supported all reactions, and once I knew the discomfort caused by my actual body changing, I was more sensitive than usual about checking in with people a few times in the session to see how they were feeling about it.
This reaction is related to the conscious and unconscious feeling many patients have that the now pregnant therapist is and will become more and more sel preoccupied and unable to be present and focused in the patient. Most children feel this way and show it non verbally. Having a younger sibling does not always mean a child is more comfortable with the therapist having a baby. The therapeutic space belongs to him or her and many children feel the therapist is going to be inattentive and absent. This reaction at any age can be very real in many ways. The pregnancy is a very real intrusion as well as a big or little distraction for both therapist and patient.
For me, as I contined to view my work with patients, despite the changes of pregnancy, I continued to see my work as a good distraction for me from focusing on the pregnancy and the inevitable birth of the child and shock of now having a real human to take care of… I could not avoid talking about it at relevant moments and accepting that it was very disturbing for some. Even the people who ignored it completely, were nonetheless deeply affected by the change in the therapeutic space, however, they ndicating that it was easier for them to “forget” about this intrusion and sort of get rid of the belly in order to avoid some kind of discomfort. Other therapists that I’ve talked to during their pregnancy have expressed that it was increasingly difficult to focus on and care about their patients, especially therapists at very difficult often traumatizing jobs, so this concern is very natural and needs to be addressed even if the therapist or especially if the therapist is colluding with those patients to try to ignore the inevitable change, that the therapist will be taking a leave, some short, some longer, and the patient has no control over the timing of it in their own life’s journey and their own progress/process in therapy. The return of the therapist is also not in the patients’ control. In private practice, there is usually trust that if the therapist says she will return in two months or three, she actually will; however, I have known a lot of therapists in all kinds of jobs who have been unsure of whether having the baby will cause them to decide not to return to their job, or to return briefly and terminate. In short term settings, the pregnant therapist usually has more emotionally laden issues with the rest of the staff, rather than the patients who may be at the site, such as a hospital, very briefly. These patients tend to be the least affected by the therapist’s pregnancy, although in many cases, people still have strong reactions and transference towards the pregnant therapist, more related to their own particular feelings about mothers and mothering… Thus, short term sites can actually allow for some interesting issues to emerge in therapy and art therapy groups when the pregnancy is addressed in a less personalized way. Discussions that would not normally occur may happen due to the pregnancy bringing up a lot of issues and feelings…
There is much more to say about the topic of “Recognition” and lack of it (thus the therapist’s inevitable “Announcement”. When in the session to tell the patient and how are another interesting focus to be further explored, as there are going to be people who simply do not say anything and even admit to waiting for you to tell them, as well as those mentioned above who probably are avoiding it altogether…
To be continued…

My 9/11/12 post a day late…

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These photos did not show up in the order I intended, however they are a good representation of the way the day of 9/11 is punctuated by memories, memories of artwork I did that was very much a personal response, and the present day 11 years later with the ghost of the towers shining in the clear night sky. I also took some pictures of sunflowers at a deli on Chambers st. That I should have included…

So there was this desire to take many photos of the ghost lights making a large eleven and two white towers in the night sky; I took many photos of them on my walk home in the neighborhood. I also took sone self-portraits with them in back of my face. As well, there was a desire to take photos of the street signs and flowers in the deli, even the sidewalk, perhaps an expression of the weird feeling of, it’s as though it never happened when you look at the essential life of any NYC neighborhood: there are the street signs, different signs in a different color but the same street names, there is the concrete sidewalk and the corner brightly lit up deli open late…

The twin lines of light always inspire and move me; they function as a better expression of a “memorial” than any building or fountain or plaques could be, and there is something evocative about their annual reappearance and disappearance. Also, their simplicity and visual effect if having no words, accounts, stories, explanations, even objects from the day, etc., as no words capture the essence of such monumental events such as 9/11 and other more personal private losses people suffer with: because there are no words for the big gaping hole of a traumatic loss, any death of a loved one really… These twin white lights stretch high into the sky until they link together, no longer seen as separate, one white far away blurry line swallowed up by the night sky…

In my art work there is a continuity since 9/11/01 versus before it. I posted some images done soon after the event, the one with ink and green background and the double one with a filmstrip like composition of a face and traces of a building in pinkish colors.

Another photo posted here of two framed drawings is a diptych, entitled “Falling Towers” fine with pen and mostly bright pink ink, from around 2009.

Finally, tying it all together are 2 tiny pieces made yesterday evening in my studio. They were response art but seemed to be connected with the day, a long one which swung from everyday “normal” activities with my oblivious 5 year old keeping me in the present moment, and pockets of moments of replaying parts of the day 11 years ago, tiny emotional moments punctuating a beautiful September day with a clear sky…

Death and Neckaces

Ok. I started a very long post a few days ago and it got erased!  Then I spent a lot of time finishing the post and part of that got erased! Major frustration!!! I’m feeling blog post guilt for not posting in so long!

I thought of calling this post “Death or Necklaces”, but, as is the way of blog writing, I know there will turn out to be some connection between the two topics. Already they are connected, as the main topics related to art therapy and psychology that came up while I was on vacation in the woods upstate.

On my vacation, I brought only several books with me all of which were related to therapy; luckily I was reading “Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” out loud to my daughter every night to offset the fact that I didn’t bring any “vacation” books, such as novels. (Note: good rule for next vacation and for other therapists, only bring books unrelated to our profession when going on vacation or staycation.) The main book that had a huge effect on me was Yalom’s “Staring at The Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death”. I started reading it the first night and couldn’t stop myself from reading it every night, until about page 248, when I had to stop, as it had become too overwhelming. I think this happened somewhere in the middle of vacation. I found myself thinking too much about death, dying, death anxiety, and loss. I know the book brought me to the point of tears, but oddly I can’t remember what it was that I was reading in it that did that. I’m also not sure what I was reading about when I put the book down. I had already read his chapter about his own experiences with death and death anxiety…

Oddly enough, a long vacation already has an element of loss and awareness of how the present slips into the past and how the future is limited, as the “longer than a week” vacation has a beginning, middle and end. Having about 18 days away afforded me the kind of reflection about the vacation itself that was due to its length and my being hyper aware of the vacation’s having an end date, the “death” or “expiration date” of the vacation… For, in contrast, with a short week’s vacation, one barely has time to get used to it before it is over. So this book topic oddly resonated with my having my first long vacation as a therapist, and as an adult actually, as I never before took such a long vacation,at least in the past 15 or 20 years…

I spent most of that time in the woods with my family, on a small pond populated mostly by frogs and a few crayfish. The frogs were a highlight of our stay at our friends’ “Froggy Pond Cabin”. A daily activity involved going out in the paddle boat and spotting frogs. As they are well camouflaged both day and night, it was very exciting to find a frog at the edge of the pond, and then just sitting and watching a frog, as, surprisingly, many of them sit quietly in the same place not moving at all, even hearing us talk to them and about them or at night shining a flashlight on them. Each evening as the sun set, the place was filled with a chorus of frogs croaking, calling to each other. At times I could also hear frogs in some other nearby pond. Their voices were wondrous and strangely had no connection whatsoever to the “ribbit” frog talk in the English language. (At least “moo” is a close enough approximation to a cow’s real sound!)

I mention the frogs to start the topic of being far away from the city in nature and strangely, very close to death all around us. The first night we were there I was not that surprised to find the corpses of 2 dead mice in the house, which had decayed to such a point that their skeletons were viewable. Last year, staying at the same place, I had found a mouse newly dead and seen some live mice, so I was very aware that I would likely encounter a dead mouse. I have seen many dead mice in my lifetime but nothing like these two. They looked like they could soon become fossils. Somehow the extra time of their being dead, the idea that they had died long before we got there, to discover them like that was very strange and the eerie feeling it brought up stayed with me as the vacation continued. They were under a bed, and I developed an irrational fear of seeing them again, as well as guilt at the edge of my mind that I wanted to clean up this mess, but couldn’t bring myself to do it as they seemed enmeshed with the carpet. There was something very spooky about accidentally spotting them with my flashlight at bedtime with my daughter, who may have even asked to look at them. It was also strange as Alice in Wonderland encounters a live talking mouse soon after arriving at the bottom of the rabbit hole. The aliveness of the creatures in that book was even more interesting as we encountered some out in real life, both alive and dead. We saw live moving caterpillars and dead ones, all sorts of spiders, mostly alive, and many other insects including some creepy variety I was unable to recognize, as well as one dead frog found at the end of vacation, which was saddest of all, as we had become so friendly with the frogs.

I go on about dead animals as well as live ones and fictional talking ones because dead creatures of other species are all around us, and usually we remain unaware of them. Of course every time you enter a supermarket, no matter what you eat, there are dead animals there… The first night when I began the book with his introduction to the concept of death anxiety, I had a premonition that I would have a dream about death, and I did.

I dreamed about having a dog that was only 2 and dying of cancer. I was talking to the vet who was telling me it was over and I had a hard time believing her because the dog was so young. The dog was the same kind of unusual dog my close friend had and recently lost in a very traumatic sudden manner a few weeks prior. Also, in the dream, my own dog, who died in 2009, was there in the background, a kind of ghostly presence. It was a very sad and emotional dream and very vivid.  The dream resonated on many levels. The obvious one was that it was about a recent loss my friend experienced that touched me, and about my own loss of my dog. What did not occur to me until now while writing about it is the idea of the dream being about my own death anxiety, if I look a little deeper or apply the idea that everyone in the dream is me. Perhaps I was telling myself to live as though I had very little time to live. A few days later, when I told my daughter about the dream because she was curious, I was struck by her saying, “Oh you had that dream because you are do sad about Claude (my friend’s dog who died suddenly and traumatically), and you think about it a lot.” She was right in terms of the vivid urgency of the dream and seemed more aware than I about the effect of Claude’s death upon me. Her short life experience of death is of my own dog’s death, so she senses a lot about my own sensitivity to dogs. She remembers him and learned a lot about death because of it. My own experiences of death that I remember, besides having turtles and a hamster, happened when I was much older and lost my first beloved grandmother at about age 13, though I am sure I thought a lot about how strange death is and what happens when you die, and other typical childhood wonders about being put in a box in the ground, etc. Being a native New Yorker, I have more vivid memories about my concern with garbage and where it is dumped. (Recycling did not exist.) I remember spending a lot of time being freaked out by the idea that there is a limit to the space on earth, and how do we manage to keep generating garbage, where does it go, and why does it not overpower us because of the constant continuance of it. What will we do when we have no more room to put the garbage? I think this coincided with my wondering about dead bodies accumulating and a limited amount of space for them. It still bewilders me that at some point there will be no more space for cemeteries…

What struck me about this book was the author’s philosophical approach to death and death anxiety. He is a therapist, but quoted a lot of philosophies to his patients and discussed philosophers and philosophy a lot in the book, as they deal a lot with the subject of death and human existence. Questions arose about what makes a life meaningful, how do we deal with the fact that many years from now even our most famous authors and philosophers may not survive? Our art will likely be eventually destroyed, millions of years from now, so even the idea of living on through what we make is ultimately an illusion and delusion. The only thing that can save us from the anxiety of nothingness and not being or even being remembered is his idea of the concept of “rippling” like water in a pond, our effects upon others in our relationships, whether as friend or mentor, that is, to, in life, have a meaningful effect upon others. I agree with Yalom that when we die we cease to exist. That’s it. Concepts of reincarnation or after life are just false comforts for death anxiety. To really deal with our death anxiety we have to face our mortality and accept that we will disappear completely. Although unlike Yalom, I believe in synchronicity and unconscious connections and sometimes maybe in some idea of fate or that things happen for a reason, ultimately I have to agree that death just happens and that’s that. There is no explanation for babies and children dying. Or our pets dying too young or dying at all. It doesn’t happen for a reason. The only way to deal with the fact of death and our own mortality is to live as much as possible in the present moment. It’s why we are drawn to dogs, cats and children. They bring us into the present moment so we can indeed be here now. Sex functions the same way. I have seen countless movies where people seem to be inexplicably drawn to having sex after a funeral, for the obvious reason that it is a way to move away from thinking about dying and that our lives will end like blowing out a candle.

“Staring at the Sun”, Yalom calls this book because we really can’t do it for too long, or we get blinded. We need to be aware of our own anxiety about our own death, but we can’t be too preoccupied with it, or we will cease to live. The only unanswered questions I felt he did not address were about suicide and suicide fantasies. Those people who fly straight into the sun and have their wings melted, what about them, the people who deal with death anxiety by trying to control death and take their own lives? He does not grapple with that subject, though he has plenty to say about his experiences of working with people who know their time is limited and that they will die soon, and how much he has learned from these very awake people. I was also just curious about other aspects of suicidal ideation, such as people who fantasize about being dead and at peace as well as the phenomenon of a person failing at a suicide and reporting that in the middle of it, s/he changed his/her mind about it. Did  death anxiety save such a person, or the desire to have more life? Probably these two ideas are tied together.

We all fantasize about peeking in at our own funerals. What would people be saying about me? we think. Another useful fantasy is to imagine that you are told you have a month or a week left to live. What would you do differently? If your answers look very different from your life right now, you know you have urgent work to do in therapy and in your life. If your answers are close to your present life, you are living more fully, but there are always changes to make and ways to awaken yourself more now here while you are still breathing. In my family we have a goodbye ritual when any of us are leaving the house, that, though a quick one, serves as a way to ensure that even if tension was in the air about something, we know we acknowledged our bond before the possibility of ultimate separation. As I not only live in NYC but close to Ground Zero, I am hyper aware of the concept of leaving the house or someone else leaving and never seeing each other again…

Bringing me to the topic of necklaces… On my vacation I made a lot of art with and without my 4 year old, so my art was very influenced by the materials we used as is usual. The one different thing for me was a sudden desire to use beads and make necklaces. It probably started before vacation when I took my daughter to Beads of Paradise in New York City, and we picked out beads and made necklaces. I had thought of it as a fun activity to do wuth her, but when I got home, I hunted out my beads that I bought years ago on a trip to new Mexico and made another necklace. It was then that I had that “aha” moment when you do something without thinking about it, and suddenly you really like it. So on vacation I brought those beads with me and got obsessed with not only making necklaces but getting more beads and sorting the beads by color and starting a kind of collection of beads. It became my alone meditative time at the cabin because my daughter did not show interest in beading.

Sitting outside and putting beads on a string was a discovery similar to my discovery of knitting many years ago. I didn’t take jewelry making of any kind or beads too seriously when I started learning about art therapy. I had the usual bias that somehow it wasn’t as creative as drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. That bias disappeared over the years as I witnessed the therapeutic effect of working with beads and other media traditionally thought of as “crafts” rather than “art”.

In any case, I had a few stray thoughts about beading as a process and what makes it so enjoyable and therapeutic. For one thing, it is like origami in that it is shown in the moment. While origami can be a performance akin to a magic trick, the necklace is also “finished” and has a definite end point. Wearing your own art can be empowering, and I’m sure it’s a part of what inspires people to become jewelry designers. Making a necklace out of colored beads also has the feeling of taking part in folk art and traditionally thought of as “woman” folk art activities such as quilting. The necklace, like the vacation and the life span, has a beginning, middle and end. I was making long necklaces so the middle became the focal point where I had the most fun picking out the extender and the special beads to put on it, and then continuing up the other side, carefully trying to copy whatever pattern I had invented for the first half of the necklace. (Note: this is where my writing got erased, so I’m not sure I remember everything I said on this topic…

For some reason, making these necklaces (see below for some photos of some of the ones I made), reminded me of the three fates in Greek Mythology. Definitely one of them is spinning something that has an end to it and is meant to represent the individual’s fate, life span, etc. Interestingly, the three fates are older unattractive women:

The Moirai were described as ugly old women, sometimes lame. They were severe, inflexible and stern. Clotho carries a spindle or a roll (the book of fate), Lachesis a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe, and Atropos (Aisa) a scroll, a wax tablet, a sundial, a pair of scales, or a cutting instrument. At other times the three were shown with staffs or sceptres, the symbols of dominion, and sometimes even with crowns. At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life. (Quote lifted from Wikipedia.)

Besides the meditative quality of the repetitious action of beading, there is the linear quality to it, with one following another. When I made mistakes I had to take out all the beads up to the mistake and start again. Of course now I think I had some profound thoughts connecting death awareness to necklace making, and I have no idea what they were… Another interesting point Yalom makes in his book is that we often live with a false presumption of immortality or of death always being far into the future. He uses the example of starting to write a book with the assumption that one will be alive to finish it. I would even venture to say that some procrastination connected to writing or finishing a written work may be related to an underlying death anxiety. Anyway, making these necklaces is not quite the same process as they do not take so long to make. Another interesting point is the accidental dropping of beads and sudden loss of a pattern.

Ultimately there are many connections between actual death, death anxiety, separation and loss, hyperconciousness, forgetting the fact of one’s own death, the living dead, etc. One thing that struck me as sad is the difference between a memory, which in some ways represents a lost moment in the past, that one can never have back, and the gaps in memory of one’s own life story; for some reason, I get sadder at the idea that so much of my life involves moments and episodes of living that I have no memory of. Having a dim memory or an awareness that the memory may not be factual is not quite as bad as the “blackout” of moments of life. However, memory and time could be a whole topic on their own…

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