A process of finding oneself — told through creative expression artifacts

Over a year and a half ago I found myself in a crisis of identity loss. I had to make a choice to either, continue living as a shell of a person in a ‘safe’ life or to leave a relationship to literally find myself again. When I think about the depth of depression I was in — it was like learning to walk again. I was starting from zero.

Having let go of many of my values, my dreams, and my hopes, or not even knowing what they were, I found myself living a life that wasn’t ‘me’. A flimsy tether to my true self remained and I knew that if I didn’t make the decision at that moment, I would lose it altogether. A precarious place to be.

Silencing oneself has got to be one of the biggest assaults you can make on your psychologyical wellbeing.

Completely ‘down in dumps’ and crippled with fear, I took a step towards a more authentic way of being and as I walked into a different world, a raw confrontation with myself awaited.

At this time, I started going to creative expression classes to re-connect with my creativity and my voice. The classes provided a space where I could proactively work on myself. It was a relief to let go and see what manifested on the paper without intentionally trying to produce a beautiful painting.

Led by Transpersonal Art Therapist, Artist, and Group Facilitator, Debra Cowen in Sydney’s Newtown, the class starts with an introduction to a theme to focus the session. After a 1-hour guided meditation, we put ‘pastel or paint to paper’ for another hour.

Then the magic happens. We form small groups to share our artworks. Without psycho-analysing, each person is invited to respond to the artworks using sentence starters, ‘It makes me feel…’ and ‘It reminds me of…’ . If this is done mindfully, without objective analysis of the artwork or applying personal interpretations, the maker often curiously resonates with many of the responses. As the maker shares their personal interpretation and understanding, they may sometimes draw on the words and descriptions used by the group, enriching the communication. In a safe and compassionate environment, the experience and feelings of the maker are honoured, witnessed and validated by the group. There are no right and wrong answers. Only the sharing of feelings that are simply ‘there’.

The making of the artwork induces a process of internal reflection and self-expression and when shared, the artwork becomes a tool for connection and communication.

This process of collective empathy allows the maker to truly be heard and through deep listening, we come to understand that we are not alone in our human experience.

To be understood and to connect is a fundamental human need

The following artifacts are all very personal (as they always are) and as such, it is up to the maker to determine the meaning. However, it is also fascinating how easily others might connect with the essence of an image, simply by being open to what it has to say.

Class #1

This was the very first class that I attended and I was so happy to be there. I can’t quite remember the theme we started with. Regardless, at the conclusion of class #1, this painting stared back at me on the table and I knew exactly what it meant.

Artifact #1 — Insane in the membrane

In the middle, lies a pulsating ‘inner knowing’ outlined by a rigid membrane separating an exciting, vibrant and colourful world. A vulnerable, warm core, coming to face an unpredictable material world, full of adventure. The painting represented my ability to see ‘me’ living in isolation desperately needing to connect and to allow others to see ‘me’ too. The electric shocks surrounding the circle represented sporadic, misdirected energy. They also represented attempted connections from the outside that were met with defensive zaps back. That means, I felt raw, vulnerable, defensive and trapped. I was incredibly frustrated at the situation as I didn’t know how to overcome it.

I remember showing this artwork to a friend, who is also a psychologist, expressing my need to integrate the two worlds, the internal and the external. She cautioned, ‘Oh, do you really want to do that?’, worried that I would be ‘selling my soul’. However, if that boundary represented healthy boundaries, that would have been a fair comment, but in this instance, the boundary represented entrapment, to me.

In subsequent private art sessions, I would play with this concentric circle image by creating tributaries and channels connecting the two worlds together.

Unifying the duality — help!

Clearly desperate to crack this nut (pun intended), and by symbolically creating connections on paper (canvas), it gave me permission to reflect on and acknowledge the challenge. It created the space and time to ask all questions of who I was and how everything came to be. It allowed me to name my fears and ponder how I could live a more authentic life.

All the pondering… and all the questioning... Completely indulgent but completely necessary.

Class #2

The next creative expression class was sometime later and we were asked to reflect on the symbol of a tree shedding its leaves, which in turn, nurtured the earth representing growth and change.

Cycle of life

Thrilled at the idea of having 2 hours to reflect on what a tree meant to me — I couldn’t be happier.

The tree I drew had a solid trunk with many roots, represented as tributaries anchored into the ground, providing a strong foundation.

Overhead, a flourishing canopy crowned by the sun represented budding hopes and dreams, while the older, dried up leaves of the past season swam their way back to nurture the soil and roots. Continuing the cycle of growth.

In this session, I simply enjoyed having the time and space to reflect on a symbol that means so much to the earth, our survival, life, and our spirituality and it shows in the vibrant colours.

Class #3

The third class started off with Debra asking us to reflect briefly on what ‘unraveling and raveling’ meant to us. I remember equating these words with learning and unlearning — the process of building and deconstructing mental models that no longer serve us and then building, weaving or raveling new ones again. I had been reflecting on the Fibonacci spiral as a metaphor for ‘becoming’ in the weeks leading up to this class — it seemed fitting.

The Nautilus Metaphor for Growth

My intuition stumbled upon the Fibonacci spiral and particularly the Nautilus as a blueprint for growth. I find the shape entirely attractive but upon further pondering, I realised this shape inherently crystalises the notion of time, progression and expansion.

The Nautilus chambers are physically created once the octopus-like organism outgrows a chamber. It creates a wall to seal off air pockets within its shell to create buoyancy. That’s a lot of phases of growth!

Cross-section of a Nautilus shell

The Ancient Egyptians and many, many others discovered the golden ratio and the Fibonacci spiral in patterns throughout nature thousands of years ago. These mathematical structures are also known as Sacred Geometry which many believe to explain the underlying order of the creation of the universe.

The Nautilus as a metaphor for growth profoundly shifted my perspective. I now see my life as a series of growth experiments with an expansive future ahead.

As the organism grows, it simply gets too big for its current chamber and is invited to move into space beyond. There is only one way to go — onward and outward.

This metaphor tells me that we outgrow the spaces we’re in. We must set new challenges and move forward. Sometimes we choose not to move into the space of opportunity as we allow the voices of fear and apprehension to stall us. Imagine what would have happened to the Nautilus octopus-like organism if it had just stayed in its original chamber? It would have taken more effort for it to resist its natural growth trajectory and most likely, would have not come to be.

Before understanding the natural process, I had originally thought that choice was inherent to the process of moving from one chamber to the other but now, upon further reflection, the only choice I have to make is to move with the natural rhythms of life that beckon us to grow regardless.

By allowing ourselves to move into a new chamber we may also need to relinquish old mental models that no longer serve to explain our experience adequately and make way for new ways of being, armed with our past experiences. We move into a bigger, more spacious new world filled with new hopes and challenges, ready to discover what new adventures and gifts await.

Stillness in ever-expanding movement

When viewed in relation to the first artwork, this piece has a much more significant meaning. Visually, it would seem, that I had finally cracked the nut. Rather than staying closed in my circle of safety, I had opened up and what formed was a spiral.

And what is a spiral but a circle moving through time and space? No moment like the one before, just continuous movement and expansion.

Given the amount of time between the two paintings, it is difficult to pinpoint a singular turning point but it had something to do with movement — moving through dance, progressing in my career, connecting with like-minded people, setting intentions and projecting goals. Slowly focussing my life by realigning my priorities was another important aspect (one that this a continual process). I was integrating more of ‘me’ into my life, moment by moment.

This image, a cosmic symbol of creation packed with many layers of meaning, is hugely important to me as it so accurately represented my feelings and emotions at the time. It has opened up a gateway for me to continue to explore what other secrets of the universe awaited.

Class #4

By class number 4, I was looking to see “what would come out” onto the paper.

“If I asked you to draw spring, this would be it”

One of the group members commented, “If I asked you to draw spring, this would be it”. It was an accurate description as I dwelled in the fertile ground of the many possibilities within me, connected to nature and following my heart and mind as much as possible. Another person commented on the ‘lack of direction’. I somewhat agreed with this statement as I felt that I didn’t necessarily have the ‘answers’ but I was very ok with it. After a year and a half since my big life change, I knew I was in the right spot and trusting that answers will eventually come.

Random Class #5

And finally, I would like to mention this piece. Have you seen this before? In another creative expression class, I produced a very similar artwork to the first.

During the meditation, I observed my inner being, my body, and my surroundings. I became acutely aware of my separateness to the material world. This was my way of expressing the constant negotiation between spiritual and material worlds and the ongoing quest to integrate the two.

In contrast to the first, this image depicted an inner circle attempting to push through the boundary with intensity. There was a desire to forcefully break and be done with it already.

But as I learned in Class #3, rupturing the seal of the membrane or forcing an outcome of any kind was not my key to freedom — movement was. The key was to invite incremental change in daily thoughts, choices, and actions and to bring that inner stillness to movement.

Learning is circular in nature. The same challenges, situations and repetitive thoughts will arise. But we’re always moving. Even if sometimes feels like it’s at a snail's pace, or indeed, you feel like you’re going backwards. Ask yourself, what new perspectives do you bring? What gentle reminders do you tell yourself?

We are on a continuum, ever-expanding. No one moment will ever be the same as another. We are in a constant state of change. The process continues, onward and outward. This is the ever-expanding beauty of learning that is a natural part of life. To find stillness in the movement is now the new quest.

Crystallising the aha! moments and sharing my passions of creative expression in all its weird and wonderful forms