One of the main reasons I got interested in this world of what some might call “art therapy” is because of the results I have seen in my own practice. I didn’t get into this field as a career or as an extension of my performance, I stumbled blindly into this world while intoxicated with grief and confusion. There have been several points in my life where I was so insecure about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing that my daily existence was white-washed with anxiety. Even though I had found my way to the arts at a relatively young age, I was still completely lost in regards to the idea of using creativity as a tool for healing.
Like most young people from my generation, I grew up in a pretty conventional household that honored things like hard work, rational thinking and modesty in speech and action. Self-expression wasn’t exactly frowned upon but it certainly wasn’t glorified either. My parents, like their parents before them, saw the world as a tough, no nonsense place that you hard to fight your way through in order to get ahead. The idea of things like self-inquiry or soul searching simply didn’t exists. Survival was the main priority so all things existential or frivolous were forced into the back seat.
When I started showing interest in personal expression through the way I dressed and the music I listened to, I was immediately placed under the spotlight of criticism by a lot of my family and friends. They just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stand out in such a way. They called it childish and told me it was just a phase that I would eventually grow out of. They told me to get my priorities straight and to start thinking about a “real future” instead of wasting my time with things they considered to be hobbies.
Things really started getting ugly when I told people that all I really wanted to do was make music and write poetry. This kind of mindset was simply not tolerated where I grew up. People thought it was foolish and immature and they had no problem telling me so. All the things I saw as desirable and important were belittled and laughed at. I wasn’t encouraged to seek out teachers or given advice about finding employment through these mediums, I was simply berated and lectured about the instability of these activities.
It was almost like my free spirited life goals were threatening to them in some way; like what I was planning to do would somehow collapse their entire world view and delegitimize the sacrifices they had to make in life. I personally had no intentions of doing such things, I just wanted to follow my own tune and do what made me happy.
It’s not that I didn’t understand the value of hard work. I got my first real job when I was 16 and still in high school. I understood that I needed to work jobs I didn’t necessarily enjoy in order to support myself but I was quite certain that these things would never be as important to me as my music and my writing.
Even after leaving home and hitting the road for several years, I still felt insecurities about who I was and what I wanted to do. I couldn’t seem to shake the second-hand negativity that followed me from my youth. I was getting energetic confirmation and encouragement from all different corners of my life but because of all the criticism that surrounded my past, I still wore the painful shackles of doubt.
When I reached my late twenties and had found my way in and out of “success” within my artistic medium, an entirely new set of insecurities kicked in. Somehow, even while doing the things I wanted to do and also making a modest living with them, I found myself drained and confused. My life didn’t seem to have the kind of substance I longed for. Everything I was doing seemed to be forced and corrupted by my need to be successful and recognized in the world. I kept feeling that I wasn’t good enough and that everyone around me was laughing at my inadequacies. I was living in a state of mild paranoia that seemed to only get worse as I was exposed to more success. The pressure of always needing to be better than I felt I was started making me irritable and began causing conflicts within the band. I know I wasn’t the only one feeling this way but it definitely hit me with some serious force. My need to be better and to become successful was also fueled by the fact that I was a father and had a responsibility to take care of my family, so my insecurities were particularly insidious.
After I left behind my life as a (more or less) professional musician and walked away from the toxic lifestyle I had surrounded myself with, I realized how desperately I needed to rediscover myself. All of my identity and my personality had been wrapped up in needing to be successful and because of this mindset, I felt like a failure. Also, due to some of the negativity that contributed to my departure from the band, I even felt ashamed of myself for not having been a good enough musician to overcome the obstacles. My mind and my heart were so overcome with corrosive chatter that I was loosing sleep and as a result, resorted to drinking myself into a sort of walking slumber. Ironically, it was out of this place of conflict and pain that the idea of using creativity as a source of healing was found.
At a certain point I just knew that I needed to do something about my situation. Because of all the sadness and judgement that was building up inside of me, I hadn’t done anything creative in months. Every time I went to pick up the guitar or banjo I would hit a wall and put it right back down. All the things that had brought me joy in the past we’re now stark reminders of how much I had lost.
At first, the only think that I knew I could turn to was my meditation practice. Meditation, at least within the traditions that I have studied, is all about being present with the circumstances of life. It’s about facing your problems instead of trying to run away from them and Its also about learning how to quiet the mind instead of allowing your thoughts to consume you. With a dedicated practice, you slowly come to realize that the thoughts in your head are just like clouds in the sky. They come and they go and they never stay exactly the same. As long as you recognize this and don’t cling to them or try and push them away, you can find peace in the midst of any storm because you know that it is temporary. Difficult times and negative feelings will inevitably arise but if we can learn to put a little space (the breath) between their arrival and our reaction to them, then our relationship with these challenges might start to change.
Cultivating this understanding through my dedicated meditation suddenly made me see creativity as a similar tool. I could see that the reason meditation was helping me so much was because of the fact I was committed to sitting, no matter what; and with this commitment I was able to let go of the results. I told myself that I was going to sit everyday for at least one year and wouldn’t worry about what I was going to get from it. I was going to trust the process and trust what my heart was telling me. In regards to creativity, I decided to do the same. I told myself that I was going to treat my music and my art the same as meditation. I was going to treat it like a sacred act and practice a little bit everyday without expectations.
Because of this kind of commitment to creativity, I was able to start expressing myself in a brand new way. Sometimes it would only be five minutes of noodling on the guitar. Other times I would spend hours playing through all the material I had written in the past. Everyday was a new experience and as long as I remembered to release any expectations and approach the process like I would my meditation, a little bit of healing would be found.
At the end of my first year with these practices I found myself in a brand new state. I was happier and more calm than I had been in years. I even started to write my own music and poetry again. I was absolutely blown away by the healing that I had received from such a simple commitment. All it took was discipline and courage and a willingness to listen to my heart instead of the thoughts in my head.
I am now two and a half years into this process and can’t imagine stopping. Everyday brings new insights and new levels of understanding. Nothing about this commitment has been easy but the rewards have far outweighed the sacrifices. These practices definitely aren’t magical cure all’s that will instantly fix all your problems. They require serious work and a willingness to be honest with yourself about where you are right now. The real results are found when you learn to accept the fact that you are a human; with all your flaws and limitations, with all your inadequacies and imperfections, with all your doubts and fears and you decide to create anyway!