The Healing Power of Creative Expression
It was a Friday evening at the end of an ordinary week. But something was wrong. I felt a heaviness and an unwellness that I just could not describe. Not unwell as in coming down with a seasonal bug. But rather the anguish of a heavy burden sinking down on my chest.
I told my partner David that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was, and that I was just going to get into bed to try to be gentle with myself. I remember trying to watch some DVD I’d seen many times before as a way to lighten my mood. And I remember in the background of my mind, something was working away, trying to resolve itself.
Later there were tears and exhaustion and I slept. I let myself be like that for much of the weekend, very puzzled but knowing that this was something from deep within, as it was not related to anything currently going on in my life. There was no ‘story,’ and I so appreciated my hard-won (though still inconsistent) ability to not make one up, but to simply try to be. To be with myself. And to just be.
Then, on Sunday late in the afternoon, I suddenly thought – my painting! And on Monday I asked Anita, my painting teacher, if sometimes strong feelings arose with paintings. She replied yes, that some people paint to get feelings out. That had not been my intention in painting, and so I was not aware of this possibility. Yet, it made total sense.
And what had I been painting about? I didn’t know it yet, but it was to be about the war in Sri Lanka, the land of my forebears, a war that had gone on for close to 30 years and had only recently ended – militarily, not in any true peace.
Just a few weeks before, Ammah (‘mother’ in Tamil), David & I had returned from spending a couple of months in northern Sri Lanka, the Jaffna Peninsula which had been cut off for most of the war. For Ammah and me, it was our first visit to Jaffna since 1979. We had gone with the idea of her showing me the villages where her parents grew up – a pilgrimage of sorts to pay respects to the elders.
In northern Sri Lanka at the time, although the war was officially a few years over, the military presence that remained was disturbing. At every big junction, there were barricades with uniformed, armed military personnel, with compounds surrounded by walls and razor barbed wire. People we met shared stories of their lives during the war and the trauma they continued to live with was palpable.
While we were there, we also shared NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and TRE (Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises) as a way to help people deal with the aftermath of the war. We did these with a wide range of people, from family members and friends to activists to children in an orphanage – and everyone felt immediate relief and spoke of feeling ‘lighter’ for the first time in years.
Despite the post-war setting, in many ways it was a joyful trip, with Ammah discovering cousins she had not seen in close to 50 years! (One of Ammah’s cousin’s daughter refers to us as ‘the relatives who dropped from the sky’. There’s something poetic about that, no?)
I share all this by way of offering the context of this painting from which to talk about the intuitive painting process I’ve learned from my teacher, Anita Nairne. In my time as her student, I have come to trust more and more the process of allowing intuition to emerge. Following her method, I usually do not approach a painting with an end product in mind. Rather, I paint the background with whatever colors call to me that day, and then I step back and just watch… I look to see what emerges, and then draw that out, making it more defined. Invariably, the symbolism of what emerges is related to something I am discovering about myself, or recovering from, or it provides guidance about what to do in life.
So for this painting, first there were big blocks of colour – orange, blue, green. The next time I went into the studio, the first few things to emerge were the fallen statue of an orange-robed Buddha, with a tear rolling down his cheek; the silhouettes of Buddhist monks with guns slung over their backs; and a bo tree at the root of which was a giant machine gun, that the roots of the tree were slowly breaking apart.
Now, to be clear, monks with guns is not an image I’ve ever seen, and yet they were clearly there in the painting, and I simply drew them out.
The power of the images was undeniable. In Anita’s studio, three students can paint at a time. So each time I went in to work on this painting there were two other people, different ones each time. And, invariably, they were disturbed by what they saw as the painting progressed. One of my painting colleagues said, ‘But if monks had guns, what would the world come to?? That could never be real!’ To which Anita replied, it already is. (In both Sri Lanka and in Burma, while they may not have toted actual guns, it is some of the Buddhist clergy that have been the most egregious instigators of violence against the minority, non-Buddhist populations.)
Then, as the painting continued, other images became clear… On the day-long drive from Colombo (the capital, further south) to Jaffna, once we approached the northern reaches of the island, we saw UN mine clearing teams. Land mines were used by both sides throughout the war and these ‘gifts’ were ones that kept on giving (according to the BBC, in 2012 there were more than a million landmines in the north of Sri Lanka). So at the top of the painting is the warning tape (like police do-not-cross lines) and red signs telling people (in all three languages, English, Tamil and Sinhala) not to proceed due to the danger of uncleared mines.
I ended up finding photos of people during the war – of a group behind barbed wire fencing, kept in a place called ‘the Cage’ where the final days of the war played out with both sides opening fire in a supposed safe zone for civilians; young girls huddled over in a trench cum bomb shelter. I transferred a couple of these via gel medium onto the painting. The fear in these eyes is haunting…
And, despite all the disturbing and unsettling images that were becoming part of the whole, the right panel of the painting was open and hopeful. I saw something flying there. I thought of a butterfly, but that didn’t seem quite right. A dove… far too cliché. Then it came to me – a kingfisher, these birds we saw streaking past in breathtaking blue as we drove towards one of the worst hit parts of the north, where whole communities disappeared, not from the war but from the 2004 tsunami. Yes, the kingfisher fit there.
Only later did I look up the meaning and symbolism of the kingfisher. The Stork-Billed Kingfisher, the one that was living in my painting, is a long-time symbol of peace and the promise of abundance, new warmth and love, as well as of how to plunge into the unknown with confidence and without fear. The relevance of this bird to this painting was stunning to me.
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I’d painted as a child and in high school and just after, then not again for more than twenty years. So this process of painting with Anita was a coming back to myself. And, while I’d done a couple of other paintings that seemed very healing, this was the first one that really showed me the healing power of expression through my paintings.
Then, over time I have felt so honoured to realize that what comes through me is healing not just for myself, but for others who take in the paintings as well. People I work with in my home who use an image to settle themselves and feel safer. A new mother for whom an image in red of a woman and child gives her a visceral reminder of her connection to her daughter even when she’s gone back to work and can no longer have her physically nearby. Students in classes who talk about life challenges and a painting I’ve just completed speaks to them about ways they could move through what is going on. Reminders of the possibility of Transformation we all have within us. Symbols of Hope.
Through my creative expression, I have developed more resilience for what life brings. When someone is moved by one of my paintings, I experience being seen and profoundly received, which contributes to my sense of community through sharing my creations and gifts. Through my creativity I find deep self-connection and more presence. Painting, just like NVC and other practices, is for me a presence practice – when I am there I am fully there.
Moreover, as David commented to a group of women who have been meeting with us for a monthly retreat for over a year, he has seen how painting has so helped me with my own self-compassion and self-love. Until he said this to the group, I did not realize how true this has been.
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Since that Sri Lanka painting, I have not had such an intense experience of pain with a painting, I think because now I am aware of this as a possibility. I know that emotions, transgenerational pain even, can move through me in the process of painting. If something intense does come up, I go to curiosity – just as I learned through my NVC practice. Plus, I am so grateful for another way to be with and to allow things to move through and integrate – I look forward to the clarity and healing that so often comes to me when a painting feels complete.
With painting, I find Joy – even when the topic arising is not light (Sri Lanka is not the only war zone I have painted about). Each time I go to paint, I have an aliveness bubbling up inside that energizes me and makes me smile.
I have come to understand that all of us can access unknown and unfamiliar parts of ourselves through tapping into our creativity. Through it we tap into some other part of our knowing… and through that (rather than just through the intellectual, rational part of the mind/brain) we can integrate different parts of ourselves. Deep truths can emerge that support us to be who we want to be in the world.
For me, creative pursuits connect us to our true voices and help us move from judgment to curiosity. This is true of so many practices such as NVC, therapeutic tremoring, meditation, yoga – which each address different layers of our multi-layered beings! Similarly, Angeles Arrien says, ‘the power of creativity is aligned with authenticity’ and ‘the field of creativity… is freed by moving out of ideas of wrong-doing or right-doing.’ All of these practices – including creative pursuits such as painting, writing, song, movement – help me to deeply self-connect so that I can choose how I want to show up in the world and help to create the world I want to live in. I invite you to join me on this journey, to spend a week integrating practices and tools that can help you to do the same!
To see The Dream of Peace in full, please go to the 'Gallery' page of the website.
Note: This article was written in the lead-up to the West Coast Intensive in Nonviolent Communication retreats (WCI), which I co-led in 2016 and 2017, and is being republished here.