The Healing Power of Art
People ask me quite often what I mean when I say that art heals. First of all, I think it’s important to make the distinction between the words HEAL and CURE. Let’s see if I can explain. When I say cure I think of the absence of symptoms. This usually involves outside intervention whether from medication or some other medical intervention. It is focused singularly on getting rid of a specific problem, but does not necessarily address the whole being. On the other hand, when I think of the word heal, to me this is an ongoing process that may or may not result in bringing an end to symptoms, but more broadly impacts the being’s quality of life including functionality, emotional and spiritual well-being; as well as the reduction of symptoms such as pain, and fatigue. Healing is internal. It is a relationship between your body, mind and spirit, because it takes all three to manifest a lasting sense of well-being. Healing practices restore a sense of control in situations where one might otherwise feel quite helpless. Conversely, it is simultaneously the surrendering of control over disease (or dis-ease) and embracing, noticing and honouring the body for all it does, and giving to the body what it needs to be well. This can include the obvious; sustenance, rest, and exercise but also the not so obvious; gratitude, play, creativity, friendship, laughter, music, dancing, prayer, meditation, accepting help, giving help and the list goes on and on! So, from this perspective I think it begins to be clear how art is involved in healing, but allow me to highlight just a few points.
Art is Meditation...
In today’s world the healing benefits of meditation are well researched and known. While there are many definitions of meditation, I have experienced it as a state of deep peace and mental quiet. While I remain completely alert and responsive, I slip out of complete awareness so that time drifts away, and hours can feel like minutes. When I paint I am transported to this state. The hours fly by, I feel no pain, or anxiety. My body is completely relaxed. I make choices automatically without conscious decision making. I experience a sense of being in sync with a much wiser part of myself that I like to think of as my spirit. What is surprising is that when I am in this state of mental stillness I am usually singing at the top of my voice and dancing with my brushes. Yet, there is a sense of tranquility, joy and well-being that lasts well after I’ve put my paints away.
Art is Play...
I approach the canvas or journal like a child entering a playroom. There is a sense of knowing expectancy and excitement that begins the moment I make the decision to begin to paint. As I lay out my paints my heart rate increases a little and like a child I struggle to narrow my choices to a reasonable number of paints I can fit on my palette. They all look so beautiful and stimulate my imagination, causing daydreams of all that is possible when blue lays next to viridian or magenta or nickel azo gold. Even the names are enticing!
And then there is the moment when I begin, swooshing and swishing the luscious pigments over the flat surface using brushes, sponges, stamps, and scrapers. I wield my spray bottle like a cowboy shooting his gun. Aim, then fire, then watch as inks and fluid paints drip hypnotically. And next my fingers get in on the act, smearing and dotting the paint all over the surface producing the purest feeling of joy akin to making mud pies on a rainy day or frolicking in the sand and surf.
Art is a Wise Guru...
I think we could all use a wise teacher from time to time and art has become that for me. As a psychologist who has also benefited from the wise counsel or my own therapist, I can tell you that art truly mimics that relationship. I guess that in that place of mental stillness that I discussed above, where you relinquish control and silence your busy mind, you can tap into your intuition or inner guidance. The part of yourself that knows what you need, that can see clearly what your next move should be, that is excellent at solving problems and generating great ideas. When I step away from my painting I experience a download of information to which I had no access before. Often, I have to quickly jot my ideas down before my chaotic thinking mind returns and gets in the way of recall. While these thoughts often deal with my work or other practical aspects of my life, very often they address my health whether physical, emotional or spiritual. Alternatively, they are creative. I have come away from painting sessions with unique recipes for the night's meal or ideas for workshops fully mapped out in my mind, simply awaiting execution. I have known just what is needed to solve a relationship conflict or help a friend with a problem and all this without a moments conscious thought.
I could go on, but this would become a book rather than a blog post. I could regale you with all the scientific evidence of the healing power of art but instead I will simply invite you to grab some paper and a pen or rummage through your children’s art stash and begin with a doodle and experience these wonderful benefits awaiting you as you play.