The study of subjectivity is broadly concerned with what it means to be an experiencing subject in the world. When I touch the book, “I” am the subject doing unto an object, namely “the book.” This subjective “I” touches the book, reads the book, has the book fall on her head, absorbs the ideas in the book, discusses them with another human being. So, when studying subjectivity, we ask questions about who I am, how I experience the world, and what gives me meaning as a being in the world. It invites us to think about the way in which we relate to the world around us and how we understand our place in it.
There is a long tradition of western philosophy that talks about how we can never really know the things external to us. Sure, I may touch the book, but my sense perception filtered through my brain is all I really have access to. I could be living in the Matrix and the book may not even be real. The outside world is of course experienced, but in some ways, it is always a bit of a mystery. This tradition presupposes that subjects and objects are fundamentally distinct – that I can never know the “truth” of the external world. They suggest that the subject, that I, am reducible to my brain’s processing power of figuring out the external world.
This has always struck me a very disconnected an unsatisfying way to look at my place in the world. The few memories I do have of my childhood are characterized by that feeling of disconnectedness and inability to make contact with the “external world.” Like many, my adolescence was characterized by a chronic striving to “fit in” with the popular kids, with the ever-present anxiety that accompanied a lack of knowing what they really thought about me. Even now, I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of fourteen, which incidentally coincides with the age at which I discovered the ability of alcohol and drugs to manufacture a sense of connectedness to the world – a pastime which would temporarily cure that sense of longing, but ultimately exacerbate the feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Even as an adult I have few belongings that suggest I even existed more than a few years ago. And so, with a lack of history in terms of geographic location, memory and material possessions, save for the ephemeral sense of disconnect from the world around me, I stumbled into this philosophical tradition that reified every negative cognition and somatic discomfort about my lack of fitting into this world.
But there’s another way to think about our place in the world. Maybe we aren’t just minds functioning as detached observers. Part of what it means to be human is to have experiences in the world. To both contribute to shaping the world and to be shaped by it. To bring an amalgamation of life experiences to bear in our interactions with it. Everything we know, we know from a place that has been informed by a geographic, historic, and cultural context that we bring to the table when making sense of a situation or experience. Such an approach to understanding the subject or self means that we are fundamentally evolving, unfolding and growing with each encounter in the world. We are part of the world, connected intimately to it, and it is part of us.
So, what does this mean for the kid with no memories and a chronic sense of isolation from the world? What has it meant for the girl from nowhere? It means the way I understood myself has shifted over time away from the desire to figure out what others think of me and how I can access the inaccessible. Treating the world like an object to be figured out or analyzed as means to manufacturing a sense of connection with it, somehow only puts greater distance there. But in embracing my own unfolding story and honoring oneself as an evolving, growing, and emerging creature responding to the world around her, rather than trying to figure it out, has paradoxically resulted in a deeper sense of connection and intimacy in relationships and with the world at large. The ironic twist here, is that in my experience when I let go of striving to figure it all out and instead am mindful of my own experiences and responses to the world, I actually somehow become part of it rather than a detached observer.
Moreover, if in every interaction with the world I bring with me a history of experiences that help me to make sense of those interactions, then I also bring those experiences with me as I look back at my past. This means I get to look back at a childhood and adolescence that I don’t fully comprehend, that is missing large pieces, and characterized by a sense of not belonging with the wisdom of experiences and memories acquired later in life. For the girl from nowhere, understanding myself in hindsight with the full weight of the experiences I do have, means I get to weave together a new story and claim that history for myself – to rewrite my own narrative.
There is one last important consequence that results from understanding subjectivity as evolving in response to a world with which we are intimately related and in communion. An intimate connection with and sense of belonging to requires responsibility. If we are connected with the world and therefore one another, we are responsible for both validating one another’s unique experiences and histories and challenging one another to continue to grow and evolve. It is not enough to simply honor from whence we’ve come. Comfort with self, community and other, means we must continue to submit to new experiences that challenge us to discard old ideas that are no longer productive and avoid becoming stagnant.
Understanding subjectivity as the embrace of one’s unfolding story in response to the world about her sounds lovely. yet even as I write this, I am keenly aware that I don’t always live in this space of communion with the world. I would be lying if I said I never gave a damn about what you thought about me, or how even this piece of writing might be received. I want you to like it. I hope you do. But it’s not something I can figure out how to make happen. Even with the full recognition that my striving only feeds my discomfort, I readily admit I still fall into these patterns, defaulting to my analytic brain. I have a choice today about how I want to engage the world, and it’s not always an easy one as I slip into old ways of thinking. So if you see me on the street, feel free to remind me that my own history, experiences, and insights are worth honoring or perhaps need challenged so that I might continue to grow and feel a little more comfortable in this world, and I’ll try to do the same for you.
As a certified therapist in both Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), many times therapists give me the “huh” look when I say that I use them both – together. You know that look, head cocked to one side and brow furrowed. “I don’t see how that could work”, “my clients don’t like DBT”, “I don’t like DBT” and/or “it’s too structured”. “HOMEWORK?!?!” However, over my thirteen years of working in the field I have found EMDR and DBT to be a beautiful fusion. Just like fusions with food, two things that might seem counterintuitive to put together can turn out being even better than their standalone ingredients. Think about it: chocolate and chili, sea salt and caramel, brown sugar and ketchup (BBQ sauce). Dialectics hard at work!
Like my colleague Dr. Mary Riley, the culinary arts and metaphors have been a large part of my life. Many times, the metaphor of baking has helped me to make sense of new ideas, learn new concepts, or put my thoughts together more seamlessly. Before we dive any further into the kitchen with EMDR and DBT, let’s explore some introductory information first. For those in need of an orientation, the proceeding paragraphs will give a short explanation of EMDR and DBT. Note, trauma in this context is considered to be a “wound” not necessarily just the big traumas many of us usually identify such as war, a lethal accident/occurrence, or sexual assault/rape.
EMDR therapy is defined by World Health Organization in this manner:
“[EMDR] therapy is based on the idea that negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of unprocessed memories. The treatment involves standardized procedures that include focusing on (a) spontaneous associations of traumatic images, thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations and (b) bilateral stimulation that is most commonly in the form of repeated eye movements. Like CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive beliefs related to the traumatic event. Unlike CBT with a trauma focus, EMDR does not involve (a) detailed descriptions of the event, (b) direct challenging of beliefs, (c) extended exposure, or (d) homework.” (Marich, 2019).
Regarding DBT, Marsha Linehan the developer of the therapy states:
“Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a broad-based cognitive-behavioral treatment originally developed for chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Consisting of a combination of individual psychotherapy, group skills training, telephone coaching, and a therapist consultation team, DBT was the first psychotherapy shown through controlled studies to be effective with BPD. Since then, multiple clinical trials have been conducted demonstrating the effectiveness of DBT not only for BPD, but also for a wide range of other disorders and problems, including both undercontrol and overcontrol of emotions and associated cognitive and behavioral patterns Furthermore, an increasing number of studies suggest that skills training alone is a promising intervention for a variety of populations…” (Linehan, 2015).
Merging these together, just like chocolate and chili, if we look at the theoretical frameworks alone (cue the eye rolls from us more expressive arts types), EMDR’s AIP model is closely related to DBT’s Biosocial Theory. They both assert:
Now that we have our foundational principles in place, let’s bake a cake, shall we? The use of metaphors is frequently implemented in DBT and can help clients understand weightier concepts; just as the baking metaphor has helped me in my life. Let’s put on our aprons and get to work! The 8 Phases of EMDR can be considered the recipe while the application of EMDR is putting the ingredients together to bake. DBT’s role is that of fusion, again, the chili to the chocolate. With this idea of baking, DBT’s modules and skills (ingredients) can easily align with EMDR’s phases (recipe with ingredients). The recipe is as follows:
Voila! A perfectly baked therapy cake with all its yummy fusion goodness! To finish off our baking masterpiece, let’s talk about icing. Icing is what usually draws us to the dessert. Seeing those lovely frothed peaks of icing begging to be eaten, how can we say no? Icing, in this case, can be identified as the “sell” to the client; the explanation of why EMDR and DBT work so great together. In Phase 3 of EMDR, when we are getting the client activated, we can compare this to a raging fire or the extreme temperatures of an oven. When making the “sell” Arbeitman, Goodwin-Brown, and Loomis (2016) give the example that “DBT manages the fires. EMDR Therapy extinguishes the fires.” By educating clients that the fires of life will always be there in one form or another, we give them a choice. They can choose to use those fires and temperatures to bake a cake or choose to have those same fires burn them alive. I’m guessing your clients might want cake instead of ongoing emotional 3rd degree burns. So why not invite them into the kitchen and have them sample how the combination of chocolate and chili might sound odd?
Odd, and yet oh so tasty!
Arbeitman, D., Goodwin-Brown, R., & Loomis, G. (2016, April). Integrating dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and EMDR with suicidal and self-injuring clients. Presentation at the 12th Western Mass Regional Network Spring Conference, Amherst, MA
Koerner, K. (2012). Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy: A Practical Guide (Guides to Individualized Evidence-Based Treatment). The Guilford Press. New York, NY.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Linehan, M. (2015). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Second Edition.
Marich, J. (2014). Trauma made simple: Competencies in assessment, treatment, and working with survivors. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publications & Media.
Marich, J. (2019). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy: Training Course Part 1 and Training Course Part 2 Manuals. The Institute for Creative Mindfulness 2015. 8th Edition.
Metaphors are conventionally regarded as literary devices: they are the weightier cousin to the simple analogy. Whereas the humble analogy claims, “Sally is like a brick wall in the face of adversity,” the metaphor boldly states, “Sally is a brick wall in the face of adversity.” Often the difference is described in terms of the literal veracity: the analogy is literally true, while the metaphor is not. It is not literally the case that “Sally” is made of brick and erected as a permanent barrier. But the omission of an explicit simile gives the metaphor more punch as it drives home its point.
Metaphors have gained popularity in some academic circles as we continue to rethink the function and constitution of cognition. Lakoff and Johnson first kicked off talk about conceptual metaphors only to have Slingerland, Wu and others join the bandwagon in the last 30 years. The basic premise of these discussions is that metaphors are not strictly literary devices, but in fact have their roots in sensory-motor experience: Sensory-motor “schemas” organize our concrete experiences. These are primary metaphors that can then be mapped onto hazier concepts, providing them with greater structure. For example, I understand the concept ‘life’ by mapping onto it structural elements of the concrete somatic experience I’ve had of ‘taking a journey.’ The source metaphor of ‘taking a journey’ helps me understand ‘life’ in terms of arriving at a destination, planning an itinerary, enjoying the ride, and so on. The somatic nature of metaphors means that conceptual knowledge is dependent upon physical experience.
So where literal language is descriptive and unambiguous, metaphoric language is much more open ended. It invites us to draw on our experiences to fill in the blanks and understand life as taking a journey in a way that is more personally meaningful. Moreover, it affords us the opportunity to reorganize a lived experience in new ways. My understanding of ‘journey’ is changing as I continue to encounter new ways of traveling through space and so too does my idea of ‘life’ as I continue to correlate it with the journey metaphor.
As an aspiring academic I found the power of metaphoric thinking to effect personal change and self-transformation utterly fascinating. I spent a lot of years trying to unravel implications of the idea that enlightenment of some sort required us to bypass or at least reduce the reliance on intellectual or literalist thinking, instead allowing the mind to wander through metaphoric correlations that help open us up in new ways. And yet, I’m not sure that I ever once allowed myself to reconstitute my own narrative in this way.
I have had many literal identities: academic, wife, employee. These literal identifiers organized my life in a way that allowed me to set and achieve goals making me master of my own destiny. Then, as so often is the case, things changed, and large swaths of my identity began to cleave. Frankly it wasn’t until I felt stripped of all those literal identifiers, and consequently stripped of my identity, that I began to approach and interpret my life in the metaphoric terms that had so deeply fascinated me for all those years.
The first metaphor for understanding myself happened quite by accident. I did not intentionally set out to change the narrative of my life based on the academic scholarship surrounding conceptual metaphors. I never sat down and asked myself, “in what ways are you an animal?” But I became an animal. Little by little I had been letting go of the old ideas about propriety and what constituted “good behavior”. I began to eat with soil from the garden and paint still on my hands. The sustenance was important as I pushed back into painting at break neck speed. The propriety of a knife and fork was not. I was voracious in the way I consumed different artistic mediums, crashing through my artwork. I began to identify with the creaturely existence described by John Dewey in Art as Experience, and when someone began waxing about their spirit animal I could not wrap my head around any animal that I resonated with. Instead I scrawled out, “I am my own goddam spirit animal.” For the first time in a long time, I felt alive and natural and connected without pretense to my environment.
As I mapped my life through an animalistic lens, I honed my ability to listen to my instincts. Animal reflexes are flexible and adaptable in response to the changing world around us. As animals, we aren’t tied to plans or strategies, but rather focus on following the instincts that make us aware of our needs in a particular moment or time. This kind of authenticity in reflexes led me to the another metaphor: the pirate.
Pirates, as a dear friend once told me, take what they want. They are not tied down or overly concerned with what others think of them. They roll with the tides striking out when the opportunity presents itself and scrappily surviving in times of scarcity. We pirates choose authenticity, survival, and camaraderie with our shipmates over civility any day.
The third metaphor came after sharing a photo of a batch of jam I had been making in my prized copper jam pot. A friend commented on it referring to my pot as a “cauldron.” Cauldrons, I realized, are vessels for alchemical transformations. What other way could one refer to the molecular reorganization of water, sugar, pectin, and acid that results in the magic of jam? As I carried on house hunting, without much thought I told my realtor, “I’d just like to live in a house where a witch might live.” Witches lives in crumbling homes, perhaps covered in creeping ivy – both decaying back into and rising up from the earth – at the edge of civilized society and in commune with nature. We witches witness passing seasons, the cycles of life and death, and transformation of all things. Living among the witchy merely means creating a space for both decay and growth, death and rebirth, and dancing with the transformations these cycles bring. It means we are live creatures, alchemically transforming past experiences into magical and at times unpredictable possibilities.
These metaphors began by resonating with something that was already occurring in my life. A voracious appetite for expressive arts, a swashbuckling attitude to follow my gut, and an instinct for the power of transformation in a cauldron. They were rooted in concrete lived experiences. But they also helped me to understand myself in new ways. These metaphors reorganized my narrative and facilitated greater change still by opening up new ways to understand what I had lived through and what I was moving towards. Allowing myself to conceptually play with metaphors has helped me to let go of old ideas that no longer work for me while remaining open ended in terms of where I am going and the person I am growing into. Replacement of one metaphor for another offers a fresh perspective in understanding my own identity rather than the catastrophic loss of who I am as held tight to literalist idea of who I was supposed to be. And so for now, I will carry on with a broom stick over my shoulder, rather than focusing on the letters at the end of my name. Because I have never heard of letters and titles giving anyone the power to fly.
The inclusion of culinary arts in Dr. Jamie Marich’s newest book Process Not Perfection was alluring to me. Particularly, as she included it under the tantalizing header of “Nourishment” as it relates to “manifesting” oneself through expressive arts. So, when I was asked to contribute a piece on culinary arts, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I had big plans for canning my latest batch of apple butter and whipping up a batch of tangelo clove marmalade. I am a preserves devotee. The entire process is magic to me: the alchemical transformation of ingredients that results in something greater than the sum of its parts, in my lovely copper jam pot, nay cauldron, is pure magic. I had fanciful dreams of waxing quixotically about the poetic process of mindfulness based culinary practices that increase flexibility and adaptability in a way that nourishes the soul. So, I set out to batch my preserves, like a kitchen witch with my metaphorical pointed hat perched upon my head, and the desire to go deep with some sugar.
By now you may have guessed that this weekend’s canning plans did not result in the whimsical witchy magic potion experience I had imagined at the outset, but rather quickly moved from the delicious “nourishment” category all the way back to the I’d-rather-not-be-here “distress based tolerance” category.
Apples went in the pot Friday evening. I cranked that bad boy up hoping to expedite the process and finish that night. No such luck as they still cooked too slowly. No problem! I’ll just slow it down and finish in the morning! Saturday morning resulted in a two-hour call (a delightful one, but one which would put me just another few hours behind). No big deal! A pro such as myself is certainly capable of conducting magic on the fly! Yet immediately on the heels of that call a pal showed up for a cup of coffee and to pick up a few jars of jam. Still feeling like a casual boss, I spent some time catching up and sent him on his way as my folks pulled in the driveway. “Let’s grab lunch!” they quipped. The panic began to set it. In the 5 minutes between calls and guests, I had begun zesting my tangelos. With the full knowledge that that is a flipping 48-hour process, I headed to an anxiety-ridden lunch, in which my head was exclusively focused on my damned preserves. Upon returning, I ran into the house, finished dissecting a crap ton of tangelos and got the suckers boiling. In a full-on panic now, I flipped on the power burner and filled up the canning pot. While waiting for that SOB to boil up I feverishly washed my jars and filled up a 5-gallon bucket with 25lbs of sugar. You can see where this is going, but I’ll just say the process involved a hammer and leave your imaginations to fill out the rest. The cans went down in the boiler, with apple butter splattered along the wall and after having the rack crash, I somehow retrieved them with only minor burns to my fingers. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, my carbon monoxide detector went off.
This is how the sausage, or jam as the case may be, gets made. The process is always magical in retrospect. From further down the road I can look back at my life and see how painful confluence of events has led to me existing in a satiating place of contentment. I can and do wax poetically about the beauty in overcoming the inherent challenges that exist in life having already moved through them. Beauty and magic are much easier to appreciate when we’ve made it to the other side of painful transformations.
In order to make jam, we are required to employ the right configuration of ingredients and processes in order to break apart the water, sugar, acid and pectin at the molecular level. We must add enough heat to fundamentally dissolve the old molecular bonds, boiling them at near scorching temperatures. The change here occurs under immense pressure. It’s only after that breakdown, that each component begins to re-bond in a new way, and the mixture begins to gel and transform into something completely new and so satiating.
Growth hasn’t always been a product of adding heat and pressure in my life. I’ve grown a great deal through joy and communion with other artists and soul searchers. But in my own life I have found that fundamental self-transformational change has most often come after the application of high heat and intense pressure, and that molecular breakdown and reconfiguration of the molecules that make up my soul has been necessary for reconstituting myself in the most delicious and satisfying ways.
So, with my pointed hat slightly askew, and my witch’s brew splattered all over the damned kitchen, I commence to sweep up the sugar coating the floor and clean up the sticky spots on my counter, and finally bask in the fruits of my labor. The process is painful sometimes, and the beauty of it isn’t always apparent in the midst of it all. The products of all that work, however, can be so damned sweet. For the record, the apple butter is delicious.
Simple Apple Butter
6 lbs of apples
3 ½ c. white sugar
½ c. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Ground Cloves
Core apples, leaving on peel and add all ingredients to cast iron pot on medium-low head, or crock pot if you’re feeling lazy. Use an immersion blender to blend once apples are soft and let simmer with the lid off until liquid reduces by half. Ladle into clean 4oz jars and can in water bath canner or just eat that stuff. Makes about 12 4oz jars.
Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
What makes something art? When we walk into an art museum, what do we see? Paintings, sculpture, perhaps some ancient pottery or baskets. They are shelved on glass-cased pedestals or housed in frames in a building surrounded by kept grounds and large parking lots. To experience these items is an event. Perhaps something undertaken as a Saturday afternoon treat. They exist outside of my everyday existence. Separated and categorized as products of “fine art” that are distinct from the things or experiences that populate my life the rest of the days of the week.
The invention of fine art is relatively new, with Charles Batteux coining the phrase “beaux arts” in 1746, grouping together what we now think of as “fine arts.” Certain forms of art such as painting, and sculpture became distinct from craftsmanship on the basis that the former exist only to inspire contemplation of beauty, while the latter had function and purpose. Over time these fine arts were gathered up and deposited in a museum. Even though much of what we see in museums doesn’t conform to this Enlightenment era idea that art is exclusively for the contemplation of beauty, Batteux’s legacy is intact, in that we often think of these things as fundamentally separate from our everyday experience. They are much more special and somehow distant from us. For me this has manifested in thoughts like, “I’m no artist,” or “I’m not a creative person.”
I couldn’t do what those artists were doing.
However, for most of history there hasn’t been a distinction between fine art and crafts. Rather, works of art were intimately tied to a historical period and existed in a cultural context. Music and poetry came from monasteries written for religious services, metal smiths forged incredible items in the name of wars, and detailed pottery was crafted for service in fine dinners. The artistic act has been intimately tied to daily life for most of human history, existing in a complex network of social, cultural, and historical conditions.
So, in order to understand what art is, we might first ask what constitutes human experience. A heady question, I know. Upon reflection of my own experiences it's a mishmash of anxiety, depression, joy, excitement, anticipation, gratitude, sorrow and more. Often, it is all of these things at the same time. It’s the tension between bringing the component feelings, people, places, and ideas together in resolution. It’s the integration of these moments of past regret and future anticipation into the present, when I’m most fully alive. When I find myself keenly aware of the way in which the past informs me and how the possibility of the future exists like a halo in the present moment, watching a sunset, or listening to the frogs jump in the pond, that is when I am most fully experiencing life in the moment. It’s what John Dewey calls an experience. It is the refined form of everyday experience, in which each component of that experience, whether its physical, emotional, or temporal are harmoniously interwoven and complimentary.
Art then, is concerned with living. It is the process of weaving thoughts, events, and feelings into that moment of integration. It encompasses the tension we feel in attempting to piece together what feel like disparate ideas and competing feelings, as they are brought together in the present moment. This is fundamentally what the artist does – she applies paint to the canvas, stands back and readjusts, picking up a new color or medium in response to what is felt from the canvas. It’s a process of interplay, adjustment, harmonizing, acting, and reacting until each component part comes together in just the right balance. The act of the artist is no different than the integration that occurs for each of us when we struggle through the tension to find the right balance in any given present moment.
At the end of the day, although our mediums may vary, we are all capable of being artists, because artistry is not about housing pieces in museums, it is about how we live our lives. The tension and resolution may occur for some in the studio, for others it may take place in the garden, or in listening to the frogs jump in the pond while reading John Dewey. Or it may take place while watching the sun set behind the mountains in northern Thailand while writing a blog, considering the events that led me to this moment, what it means for my future, the sounds of the crickets, and dinner being washed up beneath me in the stillness of the evening, punctuated by the chanting of monks in a nearby temple, in solitude and peace. Although I am surrounded by paints, canvases, ceramics, its these moments in which I am most fully alive, crafting life as a work of art.
When I was twenty years old, I woke up one morning and knew I had to get a tattoo. I made the decision in a blend of peer pressure (my childhood best friend just got several) and being hungover. I knew that, whatever I got, I’d have to place it somewhere I could hide it; I chose my right hip. My friend Heather and I made our way to Artistic Dermographics in Boardman, OH and I looked through scores of design books. I asked myself: “If this thing is going to be on my body forever, what wouldn’t I mind having on me at 90?” I found a lovely design—a purplish peace lily growing out of a peace sign. I loved it because I love peace. The image also represented a bit of rebellion against an Evangelical church I was just coming out of that condemned the peace sign as somehow anti-Christian.
I loved getting my first tattoo! Call me weird, I found the pressure of the needles very relaxing; it put me to sleep! While others have hurt like hell (the foot and upper middle back being the worst), there are such wonderful memories accompanying every tattoo—beautiful connections to their meanings, and what I was going through in life during each of them. To look at me you wouldn’t think I’d be too into ink. All my tattoos are in places I could cover if I had to although the older I’m getting and the less I care what others think, the less I want to cover them!
My latest tattoo led to a fascinating discussion with a friend that got the wheels in my head turning about tattoos and their meanings to the individual. Tattoo #8, on my left upper back, is my favorite poem “Blessed is the Match” by Hannah Senesh. I’ve written about my connection to her and this poem on the blog before. Quite frankly, I’ve yearned for some reminder of this poem and its meaning to me on my body for years. I thought about getting a match tattoo, a flame, or the poem in English, but nothing ever resonated. On a recent visit to Israel, a friend shared an online photo of the poem in her original handwriting from 1944. As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was the tattoo. This experience parallels the one I’ve had with every other tattoo on my body. I typically sit with an idea but then wait until the exact design hits me like lightning!
It’s not lost on me that tattoos are generally taboo in traditional Judaism. Between their forbiddance in strict interpretations of kosher law and the historical associations around tattoos as branding emerging from the tragic legacy of the Holocaust, I did reflect on what it would mean for me—a non-Jew—to get this piece permanently affixed on my body. And from these contemplations and meditations arose many of the thoughts I share in this piece.
In my reflections, it dawned on me what all my tattoos have in common. They all represent protector figures—people or ideas that I know exist within me and in the spiritual realm that support me in my healing journey. We talk about protector figures quite a bit in trauma-focused therapy. It means a great deal to my expressive arts therapist soul to have several of my figures literally with me on my body—the peace lily which I came to associate with St. Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), the Blessed Mother (my foot), St. Hildegard of Bingen (upper back and left forearm), Khaleesi from Game of Thrones (back of the neck), and the ideals of music, art, dance, and yoga (upper right back). The next one I am planning (the art is still in process) will likewise reflect the wisdom of another protector figure.
In addition to the protector figure quality, all my tattoos represent a life credo, a sacred message that transformed me when I received it and highlighted itself as a truth I needed to embrace. The most powerful example is a Latin saying on my left forearm: vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of the natural state). I received this teaching in Bingen, Germany while on a Hildegard retreat and pilgrimage in 2016 and I knew instantly that I had to get this anthem of authenticity placed on my left side (where we in the West wear wedding rings), right along the heart line. I see the message often on my arm when I dance and practice yoga. I smile at the reminder that embracing the fullness of my authentic self ultimately freed me from bondage. When people ask me what the saying means, I delight to share the translation and its teaching. The unexpected gift of tattoos is to educate others when curiosity leads them to ask questions, just as I have learned much from other people when I ask about their tattoos. In the two weeks since I got “Blessed is the Match,” I told Hannah’s story to dozens of people who asked about it. Not enough people know about Hannah and her heroism and more people need to, and if my tattoo can help me to share it, I am glad it can serve that higher purpose.
In my reflections I also realized that if I were to die tomorrow, whoever found me could look at my body and know what I stood for. In these scary times in which we find ourselves, where the different are persecuted—where a Hannah Senesh-level stand may be required of me someday—there is no hiding who I am and what I am about. I strategically placed the tattoo on my neckline for this reason. My neck bears the phrase Be a Dragon, the guidance given to my favorite feminist icon Daenerys Targaryan (Khaleesi) in the televised Game of Thrones saga. I’ve long adored dragons as misunderstood wonders of the mythological realm, and when George R.R. Martin literally gave me a badass dragon queen to admire through his work, the universe smiled upon me.
In Season 7 Lady Olena, another badass feminist, warns Daenerys not to play small for the men. She declared, “The men of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” I wept, trembled, sobbed, and ugly cried in every possible way when this scene played in the early summer of 2017. I knew that if the current U.S. political regime and the forces it represents would ever come after my head either literally or figuratively, I want this message to be the last thing that they see. Many others around the globe choose the neckline for this reason and I take great pride in following their example in honoring my life path on my body, in my heart, and with my soul.
Many of you reading this piece have your own stories of experience, empowerment, and meaning connected to your tattoos. Please consider sharing them in the comments below or, if you wish, submit your story to me as I work with expanding this series on Tattoos and Trauma Recovery. Please send any submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may choose to be credited for your contribution or remain anonymous.
Photography: Mary Riley
We hear a lot about the dangers of being judgmental in many wellness and recovery circles. And in a colloquial sense it speaks to us. No one likes a judgmental jerk. That person who constantly insists they are right in all matters and anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs or way of doing things is somehow less than, fundamentally wrong, or just plain stupid. Many of us probably judge ourselves more than others, beating ourselves up with negative self-talk. I’m guilty of telling myself I look terrible in this photo, or chastising myself for not getting some important task completed earlier. We can even internalize these judgments so much that we suppose we are bad people at our core.
So much has been written about the problems of being judgmental and how we ought to suspend judgment or stop it all together. With all the problems surrounding judgments and all the pain it can cause us, I am still going to propose something a little radical: The ability to make judgments, and discernments, may just be an innate fact about the human experience. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not necessarily such a bad thing. To explain myself, I’d like to refer you to my favorite classical Chinese text, the Zhuangzi. Zhuang Zhou, from whom the text takes its name, lived in the third century, BCE in ancient China. The book that bears his name is a delightful romp of riddles, vivid imagery, talking animals, meditations on life and death, and some really well thought out discussions about why we humans run into trouble with one another and ourselves.
First, a quick biology lesson according to ancient China: the heart (xin 心) was considered the seat of both cognition and emotion. Today we often talk about the difference between the intellectual or rational brain and emotional heart. For the Ancient Chinese, there wasn’t a qualitative difference. The heart was considered the seat of both thinking and feeling. Insofar as the heart was responsible for intellectual thought, it was thought to issue judgments. More accurately, the heart picks out things in the world discerning them from other things. For example, it deems this keyboard I’m typing on to be distinct from all of the other non-keyboard things surrounding me, like my desk or the accumulated dirty coffee mugs, receipts, and folders. Zhuangzi talks about the heart’s picking things out, or the judgments we make, in terms of Shi (是) and fei (非). When I shi something, I’m affirming it – it’s like saying “THIS keyboard!” When I fei something, I’m denying it, like saying as I point to my coffee mug “THAT IS NOT the keyboard.” These judgments are how we organize our world. They are how I know which road is safe and which is not, what things are poisonous and which are edible, what person, place or thing might be harmful, and which are helpful. The very act of making judgments is an innate a useful tool of the human psyche, straight from the heart.
Zhuangzi recognizes that these judgments aren’t without their problems. A stark fact about these judgments is that they are fundamentally dependent upon a person’s perspective. For example, standing nearer to a mountain, I would judge it to be large, while you, further away, look at it think, “gee, that’s small”. Where we are, in the physical, historical, cultural, social, and emotional senses shapes our judgments. Given the context dependent nature of our judgments, and the belief systems, ideas and ethics they give rise to, Zhuangzi asks us to remember that shi and fei, this and that, right and wrong, are merely useful linguistic categories, and not absolutes. That’s where problems arise.
Zhuangzi explains, “If a man sleeps in a damp place, his back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a loach? If he lives in a tree, he is terrified and shakes with fright, but is this true of a monkey? Of these three creatures, then, which one knows the proper place to live?” (trans. 1968). What is ‘right’ from one perspective may not be applicable in all circumstances. Zhuangzi is concerned about the tendency toward over confidence in one’s capacity to make “correct” judgments, when in fact these judgments are not reflective of some mind-independent state of affairs. Ultimately this can lead to undesirable consequences. Using the text’s example, if the loach tried to enforce his standards upon a man, the man would end up half paralyzed! Zhuangzi cautions us about supposing that our judgments are absolutely right independent of ourselves. We find conflict when we suppose that what we have uncovered really is the case, instead of treating our judgments like the useful tools they are, helping us navigate and make sense of the world. Conflict occurs when we elevate those judgments to the level of doctrine.
Ultimately Zhuangzi asks us to “fast the heart”. What the heck does this mean? While there are plenty of academics who might disagree with me, I’ve got the sense he’s just asking us to mellow out. If it’s a biological fact about us that we make judgments, the heart also has the capacity to revise these judgments as we encounter new experiences and events in the world. It means that instead of issuing judgments and treating them like dogma, the proper use of the heart is to critically evaluate our beliefs, to help us think in new ways, to grow, to discard old ideas, and to constantly find better ways of making sense of the changing world around us. To me, fasting the heart means to quit feeding it BS that makes us feel like we need to have it all figured out, and instead be open to growth, changing our minds, and forming new ideas and judgments as we journey on through life. It means that everyone has a story, a background, and a context and it allows us to treat each other as human beings on a journey, rather than condemn them as fools who don’t or won’t get it.
Long before I’d ever read the Zhuangzi I remember being inundated with talk about judgments and being judgmental. On the one hand, I knew I could be a little snarky cynical, and it was true that those were areas I needed to improve upon. On the other hand, I felt like I had some brain power and how could it be the case that I wasn’t supposed to or equipped to make judgments? An incredibly wise woman told me, “You can judge all you want, that’s how to know to stick with the winners – the people who have something in their lives that you want. What you can’t do is condemn. The only time we look down on someone is if we are helping them back up.” It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but has only become more profound over the years. What she meant, and what I believe Zhuangzi intends to convey, is that life is tough enough already. We have the capacity and ability to find what kind of life works the best for each of us and grow and renew ourselves each day. If we can help someone up, rather than condemning them along the way, it makes the journey all the more worthwhile.
Zhuangzi and Burton Watson (1968). The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press.
Dr. Mary Riley currently administers the offices of The Institute for Creative Mindfulness and works as an assistant/manager to Dr. Jamie Marich. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the National University of Singapore, specializing in warring states period in China.
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