What is Transpersonal Art Therapy?
We live in a world where we often look to external sources for meaning and happiness, yet within each of us lies the keys to feeling stronger, happier and more capable. The answer is as simple as taking a few moments to ourselves, picking up a pencil or paintbrush, then seeing what comes out. Art therapy is a simple and wonderfully freeing way to access our inner wisdom as well as an alternative path to healing.
Art therapy is a creative and transpersonal approach that can be used to tap into your inner landscape and explore your own personal imagery. You do not need to be an artist to try art therapy, either; you simply need to put pen to paper and let the creativity flow from your fingertips.
Transpersonal Art Therapy allows the participant to travel within themselves in search of healing and strength. Transpersonal literally refers to travelling within by means of meditation, which takes you on a journey beyond your conditioned thinking and into a deeper state of relaxation where you can access a higher state of consciousness. Doing this allows you to release what is hidden in your subconscious and bring it to a conscious level by way of art.
Art and therapy are both associated with healing. To create art from within has an inherent healing power. The images you draw can be amplified to facilitate new understandings and insights. Drawings can be particularly useful to verbalise overwhelming emotions from past and present crises, traumas and unresolved issues. They can help with life transitions, loss, grief, body image and eating disorders. Drawings formulate new perceptions that in turn can lead to positive growth and healing.
How does it work?
First, meditation is used to tap into the subconscious. Meditation has been around for centuries and is recognised as having many health benefits. The silence and stillness of meditation are calming in themselves. Meditation helps to relax us, releases pent-up stress and makes us feel more at peace. By quieting the mind through meditation, we can slowly begin to tap into our subconscious, listen to the small voice and visualise what is stored there. Following meditation, we can use whatever art supplies we have to see what has transpired at that particular moment, expressing and exploring ourselves through the shapes and colours that flow forth from crayons or pencils
. Through these media, meaning is often amplified and becomes clearer to us. The image created is all about the meaning it has to you, not anyone else, as Transpersonal Art Therapy is client-centred and not diagnostic.
Transpersonal Art Therapy is not restricted to drawing alone. Paint can be used, or clay for the more tactile. Other tools include dream exploration, mask work and mandalas, as these are all used as expressions of ourselves and have the effect of emotional release.
Art therapy and history
Art therapy is not new. It has its origins way back in history. Since ancient times, art has played a role in health and symbolic expression has been an important part of healing rituals. The need to make art is a basic human desire, a trait of our species as natural as language. Early writings in a variety of civilisations used pictures of objects such as animals and birds. This can be seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics and our own Aboriginal culture demonstrates the use of symbols to convey meaning.
In contemporary cultures as well as preliterate societies, art has been used symbolically to cure illness and bring about both physical and psychological relief. The Navajo from North America, for example, combine song, dance and sand painting in which specific patterns are used for specific illnesses. The Tibetans also use sand painting in the form of mandalas as a focus for prayer and an intention for healing. Both these forms of art are visually symbolic and intended for transformation and healing.
In many cultures, creating and wearing masks was considered the key to self preservation but also was used to express and control powerful emotions such as fear and anxiety. In some African and South American societies, masks were believed to ward off evil forces and help the wearer assume the identity of powerful animals and spirits. The work of the shaman is strongly connected to Transpersonal Art Therapy, as an altered state of consciousness is used along with imagery to achieve a state of healing. The belief that art can effect change and transform people may be one reason why art has been, and still is, viewed as therapeutic.
Healing through art
Many artists have used art to express their own suffering. Frida Kahlo, a Mexican surrealist, painted many self-portraits exploring and expressing her physical and mental struggles. As a child, she suffered from polio and a congenital spinal problem and later in life had a horrific car accident, which further contributed to the already severe pain and health problems that constantly troubled her.
Vincent Van Gogh was also tormented throughout his life by a mood disorder, possibly bipolar, according to some biographers. He painted prolifically, creating 800 pieces, and even wrote in a letter in the last year of his life, “I am painting immense expanses of wheat, beneath troubled skies, and I have not hesitated to express extreme sadness and solitude.” During the creative process, people often forget their illness and become absorbed by the process of art making, which may be one of the most potent therapeutic aspects of the process.
More recently, art therapy has been used to deal with trauma, loss and grief. The loss and grief caused by the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami in Indonesia were incalculable. The trauma suffered by the children is unimaginable as they lost parents, brothers and sisters. The most common effect of trauma among the children was their inability to speak. The Islamic Relief Agency set up art therapy classes to allow the children to express themselves as words were unavailable to describe the depth and breadth of their anxieties and loss. Their paintings were subsequently displayed in the Aceh museum. As a way to gain symbolic control of a catastrophic event, the process of art-making provided the children with a sense of self-empowerment.
Loss is a universal experience. Loss of health, of a loved one, a job or even our homes will unearth deep emotions at some time in our lives. This can leave a void, making us ask, “Why me?” It is often in the darkness of despair at moments of great loss that the jewels of wisdom can be found and a powerful form of healing and personal growth reached.
Tools of Transpersonal Art Therapy
Masks are powerful tools to facilitate change in people’s lives. They have been used for centuries in celebrations, healing and rituals. They are a universal language. They enable us to connect to a deep listening and enter transpersonal realms. Mask work can be used to reflect the situation we are in, visually demonstrate emotions, uncover the person behind the mask and, by painting the mask, we can identify the mask we wear, shedding the old and discovering the new.
Mandalas (Sanskrit for “sacred circles”) have been used in many cultures as meditation tools. They bring us into the centre, help us to focus and provide safe containers. For the Tibetan monks who make sand mandalas, the process is a form of meditation. Circles can be used to contain images. They can be seen everywhere in our lives — we just don’t always notice them. Anyone familiar with astrology or tarot will be aware of the astrology wheel and The Wheel in the tarot deck. The chakras are an energetic circular system, too.
Jung had a deep interest in mandalas and kept a mandala journal when he experienced emotional turmoil. He gained insight into the therapeutic effects and felt mandalas helped him restore psychological equilibrium. He also noted that his patients often spontaneously created circle drawings. Jung believed mandalas represented expression of the self and one’s total personality. The mandala has also been referred to as the reflection of one’s psyche at that moment in time. When it is drawn, it demonstrates a potential for change and transformation.
Clay is a helpful tool used in Transpersonal Art Therapy. It is very grounding as it comes from the Earth and helps to centre us. Many people “live in their heads”, particularly if they have recently experienced the emotional turmoil of grief and loss or simply because they feel overwhelmed or anxious. Clay is a good medium to work with for people who are more tactile and prefer to use their hands. It is three-dimensional, allowing them to create and mould an object that has great meaning and speaks for them.
Dreams are a series of visuals that come direct from our subconscious. They can arrive like angels with missing answers to our problems or terrify us like monsters, leaving us confused and frightened. They act like a reservoir, teaching us the transpersonal, linking our internal world to our external world. They have the potential for healing and transpersonal exploration. We can draw them out on paper, look at the story and amplify the images hidden there. They are the internal universe. However, it is a universe that becomes forgotten once we enter the real world, where our personal fulfilment can become restricted by the explosion of technology and the consequences of materialism. Really, we don’t have to travel far to become fulfilled; we merely need to take a peek into our own unique inner worlds, where the real “happiness” can be found.
The poet Rilke once wrote, “The senses by which we could once grasp the spirit world have atrophied.” Once we open the door to the transpersonal self, we may again discover the sacred medicine in ourselves.
Create a mandala journal
Here is how you can explore your own inner landscape.
- You’ll need some meditation CDs, a journal or sketch pad, a large round dinner plate (to create the outline of your mandala) and water-soluble paints, oil pastels, chalk pastels, coloured crayons or whatever medium most appeals to you.
- Create a space to work in, one that is quiet and conducive to creativity.
- Burn a relaxing candle or use an oil burner with relaxing essential oils.
- Lay out your art materials on a suitable table, then you can draw as soon as you have finished your meditation.
- Begin with a 10-minute meditation, ensuring you are in a comfortable position and allow your mind and body to relax.
- Once you have finished the meditation and slowly opened your eyes, draw whatever comes to mind within the mandala. Fill in the mandala any way you choose. Once you have finished, pick out any symbols or images you notice or that have significant meaning to you. Many images can be archetypal and concentrating on such images generates energy that catalyses impulses to explore realms of possibility and change that lead to personal transformation and enlightenment.
- Make a few notes in the corner of the paper about your feelings and emotions this drawing evoked. Give your mandala a title or write about what it means to you and include the date.
- You can now follow this process on a daily or weekly basis, depending on what suits your lifestyle.
- You may find over time that the same symbols and shapes keep recurring, which often means they have significant meanings for you.
- The circle is a soothing form to work with as it reflects our inner selves. We stay connected to image making and begin to witness the “inner landscape”.
Suggested reading: Art as Medicine, by Shaun McNiff.
Tracey Overton–Murphy runs a private practice in NSW. M: 0412 918 465, E: email@example.com, W: www.innersentience.com.au