Creativity - Art and Healing
by Gopika Nath
Kill the PainLet it out!
The silence screams
Tell it to the empty shoes
the dirty socks
already filled with pain
Open the windows
let the tears flow
Each one of us is creative in our own ways. Each day all of us do find creative ways to circumvent the blocks and puddles we encounter on our journey of life. These endeavours may not be termed artistic masterpieces, but they testify to the creativity inherent in the human spirit. In writing about traditions and artistic practices in ancient India, Ananda Coomaraswamy said, “An artist was not a special kind of person, but every man a special kind of artist, otherwise less than a man.” This idea is relevant even today, for the essential spirit of man remains the same.
In his book, Dynamics of Creation, Anthony Storr writes that creative work tends to protect the individual against mental breakdown. He cites an example given by Carl Gustav Jung of a locksmith’s apprentice diagnosed as “incurably insane at the age of 19”. Although not ostensibly blessed with intelligence, he hit upon the brilliant idea that “the world was his picture book, the pages of which he could turn at will… He had only to turn around and there was a new page for him to see”. Storr explains that only a genius or a madman could so disentangle himself from the bonds of reality as to see the world as his picture-book” and that this primitive way of looking lies at the very heart of Schopenhauer’s brilliant vision of the “world as will and idea”.
This concept, reconstructed as the process of visualisation today, states that when you picture yourself where you want to be, you bring into being the power to manifest this as a physical reality. In the book, The Secret, Rhonda Byrne says, “The reason visualisation is so powerful is because as you create pictures in your mind of seeing yourself with what it is you want”, you emit a “powerful frequency into the Universe” that will “return those pictures back just as you saw them in your mind”.
However to visualise, we need to know what it is that we want, and this is often obscured by negative feelings of inadequacy and rejection, manifest as feelings of pain. This needs healing. A wholeness of being, if restored, enables us to create future visions of what we want. We, therefore, also need ways to express our pain. This is a fundamental truth.
It is those thoughts that we cannot find conventional sharing for that we devise creative means to express. In doing so we do not find ourselves diminished by peers, family and friends, who, escaping the pain of their own lives, may often choose to put us down. The creative process allows us to revel, exorcise and view objectively, without censure. On the contrary, this endeavour elevates the spirit by adding to our dimension of being as a poet, painter, musician or sculptor. The creative process, in this context, in allowing us to be, reveals us to ourselves. This could lead to acceptance or change.
As I have always been involved in a creative profession, doing creative work since I was a child, I have not been aware of the extent of healing that took place in my life because of this, on a daily basis. Over the years, as the pressures of life increased, and I became overwhelmed by the stress of dealing with the nitty-gritty of daily living: deadlines, inefficient infrastructure, uneducated staff, electricity outages, unrealistic demands by clients, and the pressures of much else that all of us face each day, I did not have as much time to devote to creative pursuits. The designing work I did now was not necessarily reflective of what I wanted to express, but determined by client specifications and/or market trends.
Creative work took on another dimension. I evolved from a textile designer into a poet and textile artist. It happened so naturally that it never occurred to me to connect this with a process that allowed me a sense of wholeness in an increasingly fragmented world. Its healing property was not something I understood at once, but gradually over the years, it has become apparent: a blessing to cherish.
In his study of what motivates creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor and former chairperson of the department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, explores the notion that individuals who enjoy exploring and inventing were better prepared to face the unpredictable conditions that threatened their survival. They did not walk away, shutting themselves off protectively from disappointment, but reaffirmed their power through reinventing themselves, thus facing challenges with a renewed sense of self.
Often when I feel the fabric of my being pulled in a hundred different directions, I feel paralysed, and I cannot think clearly. I need to switch off from these debilitating thoughts. I need to reinvent, explore another dimension of being. I take fabric; paint on it the volatility of emotions. Vibrant colours, lines, trying to create some sense of order where everything seems awry. My stance becomes evident from the lines I make. There is momentary relief, but the expression is inadequate. Therefore, I start taking the fabric apart, ripping it thread by thread, and letting the feelings surface, without analysing them. When there is such confusion, order can only come through a reflective practice that indulges the chaos. I work in layers, I cut, and I tear, pull, and then stitch it all together again. Later, as I feel the work growing, I see a certain beauty even in such a frazzled creation, encouraging me to embellish the fabric with beads, sequins and Zardozi.
The work is evidently fragile, so I add some metal, copper, iron, aluminium and sometimes even wood. I explore dimensions of embroidery through personal experiences, opening up parameters of its practice and augmenting an existing vocabulary. The healing is enhanced through other therapeutic practices such as yoga, meditation, and writing a journal. Each has their own role to play and often, writing poetry or textile work is more appealing than the rigour of a routine yogic discipline. The pleasure of creating appeals when cognition of a sense of self diminishes.
When I do not feel quite so frazzled; when there is order, there is direction, but a need to reflect, go deeper; then my work has another dimension. I embroider, using threads to ‘paint’ with the needle. A single piece of work may take up to three-and-a-half years to complete [about 180 man-hours of work]. Sustained involvement such as this is only possible when dealing with deeper issues of being. We all have them. There are many factors that have influenced our choices and decisions, and where we stand today. These are not necessarily choices we are comfortable or reconciled with. When there is order in the mind, when there is time and financial security to indulge oneself, we can attempt to heal at a deeper level. This does require a certain discipline as well.
The creative process is not only therapeutic in terms of healing, but also revelatory. Sometimes, unable to fathom the essence of events, I find that through my poetry or drawings, I intuitively guide myself towards a comprehension and/or acceptance of events that have seemingly turned the apple-cart upside down, and with it my life. On occasion, I have also intuitively visualised through drawing or embroidery what or where I want to be. It is a fascinating process. I am not always so aware at the point of starting out on a piece or series of works of what the implication is. However, teaching, doing, watching and reflecting have revealed what I do through my own work. This in turn helps me assist students resolve issues in similar ways, opening up the dimension of their expression with greater success both professionally and personally.
The healing teacher
About three or four years ago, one of the students participating in a fashion design workshop I was conducting, was dealing with wounds from a broken relationship, one that she did not find the courage to give up. In this five-day workshop, I asked the students to do a little meditation (which I guided them through, with a little breathing exercise, followed by silence), and then asked them to write the thoughts uppermost in their minds. They were to use this as the idea to develop visual surface textures, without consideration of market trends. I wanted them to explore creatively, without this constraint. They selected and brought the materials they wanted to work with. This particular student wanted to work with wire meshes, and brought along some fabric/plastic flowers too. I found great resistance in her to use these flowers. I could see a resolution, where the mesh evolved to include them, but she refused. We were at loggerheads for a while, and then finally at the end of the workshop, she did conclude the work in the way suggested, without prodding from me, but with a reluctant smile. Resigned to the idea but not convinced about it.
The workshop finished, and I proceeded to teach another department at the same institute. This girl stopped me every day she saw me, for the duration that she remained at the institute, and if she met me elsewhere too, to thank me for helping her move on. She said that she had emerged with a confidence and dynamism, earlier buried deep under insecurities prevalent because of this relationship. This rather dramatic evolution and revelation surprised me too. However, I have learned that youth is more open to possibilities of change, which, as we grow older, we often resist.
Another example was a student in the class I taught this semester. I was inclined to shake her up. She seemed so afraid, timid yet wilful in a way that said she knew what she wanted, but the rest of her attitude expressed a lack of confidence. Her initial work was very diffident. It was unimaginative, but she wanted to work with the idea; it held a strong appeal for her. I tried to inspire her to experiment a little, but without success. I then asked her to take all the images and tear them up. (As they were computer-generated images, we knew she could always retrieve them if desired).
Then I suggested she re-arrange them, compelling her to let go of what she held as precious. Working in this way, by the end of the term, she talked a different way, her equation with her peers and teachers was different, and her work shone. She dressed differently too, and her gait was confident. It was wonderful to see the change, which many people had noticed too. I was a little afraid that she would fall apart with the shake-up, but because we did not talk about the personal problem but the design issues at hand, she was able to deal with the underlying personal issues as well. The students also used the process of writing down their thoughts and ideas, and maintained a journal of these during the semester. On occasion, she did share with me how she thus found strength to tackle someone who had tried to malign her on a blog. How her response on the same blog had been appreciated, resulting in many new friends. Her excitement was palpable. We had a whole term to work together this time as opposed to a five-day workshop. And although the teaching proceeded on a professional rather than creative footing, the healing and growth was evident nonetheless.
Professor Csikszentmihalyi, who has spent 30 years researching how creativity can enrich all of us, concludes “the reigning stereotype of the tortured genius is to a large extent a myth created by romantic ideology and supported by evidence from isolated and – one hopes – atypical historical periods”. He says, “It was not their creativity that did it, but an artistic scene that promised much, gave few rewards, and left nine out of ten artists neglected, if not ignored.” He goes on to say that the most important message we can learn from creative people is how to find purpose and enjoyment in the “chaos of existence.”
In his exploration of the idea that those inclined towards the challenge of invention were better equipped for survival, Professor Csikzentmihalyi surmises that it is when enough people are motivated thus by the enjoyment that arises in confronting challenges, by discovering new ways of being and doing, that an evolution of culture emerges. Applied to the concept of pursuits of creativity as a means for collectively healing our presently fragmented and terrorised world, this is certainly a priority need of our times.
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