Healing old creative wounds
I am an artist and so are you!
Now before you roll your eyes and scoff at this idea, please hear me out.
Last year, my singing teacher told me that most of her students can pinpoint the moment they stopped singing. Many were told to stop or were laughed at in their formative years.
She believes that everyone can sing. And I have seen her prove this time and again.
As a child, I explored every creative output. I saw no barriers to entry. I loved the freedom I was able to create just by being me. I made perfume from wildflowers, walls became a balancing barre, gusts of wind were my audience cheering me on. I painted the inside of a small aluminum shed one summer, took a heavy plastic bag from a farmer, and hung it up like a door, welcoming friends into my world. My childhood was full of creative possibilities, storytelling, and make-believe.
By the time I was a teenager, this had stopped. I joined my year’s choir and told the choirmaster that I wanted to be in the background. I spent that year humming along. I balked at the idea of art lessons, I had entered a part of my life where creating outwardly was off the cards. Now I was wishing for a future to come and save me. “I’ll be happier when……” entered my vocabulary and stayed there until recently.
When had things changed?
I dug deep and memories came back to me where I stopped all forms of creativity through art.
I asked friends about this. Was there any aspect of their creative sides that they gave up on due to some feedback when they were younger. There were plenty. At some point, shame became an emotion that took over potential and pride.
I stopped drawing and painting when I was twelve. An art teacher gave a strong opinion on a drawing I did of cliffs. I felt the shame rising and as a child who was raised to not question adults, I took his opinion as fact and agreed with it.
In recent years, I have built up a strong meditation practice. I’m not here to preach that I am a zen guru. I am far from it, but as someone who has spent most of her life living in her head, mindfulness and meditation has stopped that. And that is liberating. It is the best investment I’ve given to myself. When a thought or memory arises that I feel unable to let go of or understand, instead of trying to think my way around it, now, I sit with it and explore it.
Unlocking these memories, I saw the domino effect they had on how I approach creativity.
Why was I still letting a painful memory from over 20 years ago, get in my way? How can I let go of this shame I have attached to any attempt at creative work?
A core teaching in mindfulness is Acceptance. Acceptance in the context of mindfulness is not a passive acceptance of the intolerable. Neither is it giving up or resignation to what happened to you. The root of the word means to take hold of something, to grasp, to understand.
Approaching these memories with an intention of acceptance has two steps. The first is to notice the temptation to suppress unsettling thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical reactions. The second step is to actively meet all of these, welcome them in, and explore them, non-judgementally.
If you are familiar with The Guest House by Rumi, this is the essence of this poem.
As I meditated on this, I brought up the memories. I began to observe and really feel how my body reacted. Working this way, through the body, is more tactful than trying to understand the memory through thinking it out.
Focusing on the body also puts a sliver of space between me and the memory. There is a lot of literature about how we store memories in our bodies. I have mentioned some below.
Clinical psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, Our issues are in our tissues. We can spend so much time analysing things, trying to fix them, and thus we disassociate from our bodies.
Take three deep breaths and ask yourself “Where am I feeling (insert emotion) in my body? There might be a flutter in your stomach, a tightness in your throat, a sense of joy or space in your heart. Learning to reacquaint myself with the feelings and sensations that rise and fall opened up a space.
Spending so much time thinking and ruminating on issues, we avoid the intensity of emotions and thus hold onto emotional wounds.
I sat there and brought up the memory. I focussed on my breath and scanned my body from my throat down, feeling for tightness, pain, excess heat, even a chill. When I found something, I visualised my breath going directly in and out of that point. I repeated this until the feeling or sensation subsided.
When the sensation felt overwhelming, I assured myself I was safe and secure. Writing this here was a test for me. Recalling these incidences, I now see them but I don’t feel them anymore.
I started drawing and painting. I loved the newness of it. The sense of curiosity it evoked in me.
The Stanford Forgiveness Project was founded by Dr Fred Luskin. The Journal of Clinical Psychology published a study in 2006. It suggests that “Skills-based forgiveness training may prove effective in reducing anger as a coping style, reducing perceived stress and physical health symptoms, and thereby may help the stress we put on our immune and cardiovascular systems” .
The memories I had, also stored grudges towards adults who I felt did me wrong. And if I wanted to really move on and reopen my creative side, I had to start forgiving.
Dr Luskin says that forgiveness is a practice and one that we can learn. It gives us choices and it is important to recognise three things about forgiveness from the start.
- Forgiveness is about you, not the offender
- Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor, has said I was victimised, but I am not a victim. This reframe gives her power and autonomy.
- It is best to forgive NOW
- Now is the only moment.
- Forgiveness is about freeing you.
- You don’t have to like what happened or become friends with the perpetrator
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert argues that creativity is not dropping everything to pursue a career as an opera singer or painter. Instead, she writes, “I’m talking about a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”.
Working through these childhood memories, I felt lighter. I read through new eyes, conversations deepened, boundaries formed. I embraced the jourey of creating something new.
In order for me to start painting again, launch this newsletter, sing in the shower, I had to heal, and I had to forgive.
Strangely enough, doing this, makes me feel more mature. A lot of the emotions that came up on this path were attached to the child version of who I was. I know that my feelings were valid for my situation at the time, now I allowed myself to reshape my thinking and attitude based on my growth experiences since then.
Dr. Luskin stresses that forgiveness is a learnable skill. It takes practice, as does mindfulness. And that’s so important. By bringing my awareness to the memory and engaging with the forgiveness practice, I’ve discovered a side of me that is wildly optimistic. This optimism shows me the choices that I have.
I choose to be an artist, my work might not hang on the walls of the National Gallery (yet) but even Michelangelo had to start somewhere.
“Don’t think about making art. Just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art”
This article is about my creative journey. It is not medical advice. If you are new to meditation, an 8-week Mindfulness-Based programme should teach you how to Work with Difficulties.
Books that I have learned from:
The Body Holds the Score – Bessel van der Kolk
Radical Compassion & Radical Acceptance – Tara Brach
Healing Back Pain – Dr John Sarno