Transpersonal Art Therapy Unmasked
Written by Vicki Dean.
From the earliest days humans have expressed themselves through art, creating images and symbols that reside beyond the spoken or written word, to communicate their inner landscape. Art enables one to access and express parts of the psyche that are not yet conscious. Art therapy is a tool to assist us to explore and express our inner world in order to heal and live a more authentic life.
In Western culture many people feel disconnected from themselves, the land and their community. Transpersonal Art Therapy attends to healing this alienation rather than focusing entirely on the individual’s pathology. It is a holistic approach that focuses on the health of the body, mind, emotions, soul and spirit.
Transpersonal which literally means ‘beyond the personal’ marries psychology and spirituality. It unites ancient and modern wisdom and offers a range of tools and techniques to explore the many aspects of our existence.
The Transpersonal Art Therapists role is to build a bridge between their world and the world of the client so that they can facilitate the client to discover their own innate potentials and healing. The therapist assists the client to understand amplify and develop their inner symbolic language.
It can be said that a symbol has a universal meaning. However, it also has a meaning that is personal and will be different for every person. For example, if I draw or dream of a snake I can explore world mythology to get a sense of the universal meaning eg. rebirth, shedding of skin. In my personal experience snake has always indicated, among other things, the beginning of a new adventure with the anticipation and trepidation that that evokes.
Most people seek therapy as their story is no longer working for them. Transpersonal Art Therapy offers tools to re-script the myth so that life is imbued with meaning and fulfillment. Like the angophora tree which embraces its own wound and heals from within, we all have the potential to re invent ourselves and our lives.
Many people feel they would need to be artistic to become an art therapist. Nothing is further from the truth. I find that students or clients who are skilled artist can become overly concerned with skill and become attached to the product. I will ask them to swap to their non dominant hand to allow something deeper to come through. The therapist may use collage, clay and various other mediums for expression. It is the process and what is revealed that offers the healing potentiality, rather than the skill involved or the finished product.
What people would use art therapy for?
Many people consult with a Transpersonal Art Therapist to address issues in their life for example relationship problems, depression or loss of a loved one. Art therapy can assist clients to reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety, provided orientation and increase self-esteem.
I have found that many people also seek a transpersonal practitioner as they have a sense that there is more to life, that they are not living to their full potential. Gurdjieff uses the analogy that we are a mansion. However, we are choosing to live in only one or two rooms. Transpersonal work is a path towards self-realization that offers tools for us to delve into hidden dimensions of ourselves and retrieve and embody these riches in our life.
During our lifetime we face many transitions for example child to adolescent, single to married and that there are few rites of passage available to help us mark. Transpersonal Art Therapy offers rituals and tools and to help navigate through these turning points.
The power of art therapy is beginning to be recognized and it is becoming more prevalent in a wide variety of arenas. It is utilised in private practice, in hospitals, schools, with dementia patients, with children and adolescents.
What is involved in art therapy
Transpersonal Art Therapists have a wealth of tools and techniques to work with clients. Joseph Campbell compares our journey through life to the heroic journey. We are all heroes and heroines of our life and need to meet with the denizens of the deep in order to heal and live to our full potential. In contemporary Western society many people are without maps or a working mythology to guide and inspire their life. During their ongoing work the therapist may use mapping to enable a visual representation of where a person is in their life.
During a session the therapist would begin with client-centred counseling to establish a rapport and get an insight into why the client is seeking therapy. Various techniques would be offered to help the client explore their issues or life concern. The therapist may then take them into a process, for example, a guided visualization to access deeper waters.
An art process would be offered and then the therapist would amplify the symbols and how it relates to the client’s present life.
A case study: art therapy used successfully in healing
A client I worked with has given permission for me to share the healing journey she began in our art therapy sessions. After 25 years of marriage Julie’s (alias) husband left her without forewarning. He had waited until their second and last child had moved out of home. Whilst Julie had a circle of social friends, she did not feel deeply connected. She had not worked in outside employment since her marriage.
When Julie rang, I explained that my role was to offer her techniques that had the potential to facilitate her accessing her wisdom and resources. Her response was “I do not have any wisdom or resources”. When I went on to articulate, the principle that everybody has these qualities within themselves and that art therapy could help her access them she expressed delighted surprise.
Julie had been absorbed for the last twenty-five years in the world of husband and children. She did not have an identity outside of this structure and was facing disintegration with nothing to hold onto. Julie was extremely open to the work and entered it with courage and determination. She had always had an interest in the transpersonal however had not done anything concrete about engaging with it.
Our work began with her mapping her present situation. Julie resonated with Mandalas a circular template that represents the whole self. This was an excellent technique as it gave a structure and holding to her work.
In one of our early sessions, she created two mandalas – one representing her present situation and one representing her future hopes and who she was becoming. In the latter part of her therapy, she voiced how the Mandala of Hope hung on her bedroom wall and became her guide and mentor in between sessions.
Many times during early sessions, Julie would thank me for my advice and insight. Reflecting back to her, she became increasingly more aware that these pearls came from herself and I was merely feeding back material that had come from her engagement with her artworks and processes. Julie was used to placing her identity, wisdom and insight onto other and the reclamation of this over time enabled her to begin to carve out a new identity where she knew her own opinions and what she wanted for herself in her life.
After nine months of intensive work, Julie left regular therapy and continued to implement changes in her life, including a daily mandala, joining a meditation group and doing volunteer work. She would intermittently ring up for an appointment when she reached a roadblock. In the last session, she spoke about studying art therapy as it had been the turning point in her life and she believed she could offer a lot to woman in her situation. This is an example of the wounded healer, someone who has used therapy to heal and now wants to develop the skills to give back and support others on the journey.
Vicki Dean has over 30 years of experience within the creative and healing art and alongside her private practice she has worked extensively as a lecturer, group leader, facilitator and movement tutor.