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.
Expressive Arts is a beautiful process of coming home to oneself. We often spend a lifetime detached from our bodies and others-replacing connections with fallacies of social media and text message. It’s easy to scroll for hours, send a quick text, developing a habit of nonchalant routine. But is that really connection? Some say yes. They are able to check in with family all over the world or they need to check out after a long day, but that is not connection with self or with others. We’ve developed a nasty habit of leaving ourselves without coming back to self. It is anything that allows someone express who they are, their experience, giving a voice to the voiceless (i.e. believed to be unheard or experiences stuck in the emotional part of the brain that does not have access to language in the thinking portion of the brain).
Coming home to self and providing a voice to our emotions and experiences that get shoved aside with disconnection, allows the individual to settle into their own skin. They’re able to figure out what it’s like to build a home with self and the meaning of connecting to life around them. For me, Expressive Arts as provided a way for me to communicate what my home, my body, needed to spring clean to feel safe.
For me, the best part of Expressive Art Therapy is the aftermath, when the supplies are strewed about the space and smudges of paint, pastel, and glitter are left behind. There is always a different light that shines brightly in my clients’ eyes. A sense of fresh air that I’m able to sit with. The aftermath is a complete flip from when I start working with clients, because what is this going to accomplish? I can’t tell you how many times I get eye rolls or eyebrow raise when I begin pulling out crafting supplies in session.
The aftermath of Expressive Arts processing is different from the excitement in the middle of the process and the middle of their treatment continuum. Once the world of Expressive Arts is introduced, the craving to express, the desire to be heard, seen, healed, takes a front seat. It’s the lit match blossoming to life, of insight settling in for the ride. It’s the self-permission to express leaking out onto the page.
I promise you when someone is in process, it is mesmerizing. It is awe-inspiring to watch someone learn to trust themselves enough, and you enough, to express themselves. It is awe-inspiring to sit back after a session with paint smudges, charcoals, cut paper littered about, and seeing that person, that client running with ideas (regardless if it’s merely an upturn of one corner of their mouth, staring at their piece, or rushing to share what they noticed in excitement). It is wonderful when you’re able to experience this yourself. Sitting back from my pieces and taking in the message conveyed in writing or imagery. There’s nothing quite like it.
When I’m cleaning up after a client and groups, I can’t help but smile at the charcoal coating a chair or paper debris on the floor. They made a mess. They made a mess, even thought they were previously asking permission to move, worried about staying in the lines, asking to use paint. They made a mess. They let themselves make a mess, to put their hands in paint, fold and tear paper, to express everything they’ve kept inside. They let themselves try something new and permission to sit with self and explore. In a world where we’re told what to do and stay in the lines, to disconnect and move on, the best thing we can do for ourselves and those we work with is to step outside our comfort zones and greet the unfamiliarity of imperfections, emotions, and to provide a space for expression in all its formats.
For years I was scared to buy paint. One of my college roommates was an art major, and it captivated me to watch her paint. She had the capacity to create such beautiful, museum-quality pieces with her amazing talent. I loved to watch her work her magic! To this day I am proud to have several of her pieces and prints in my home, as I’m reminded of those beautiful memories of watching her in-the-zone.
Like many people I’ve worked with through the years, my barrier to painting and to most visual art came from a sense of “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not good enough.” I never seemed to have this issue with music, dance, theater, or writing where there was at least some evidence of my competence, usually in the form of compliments or accolades received. I never had a problem calling myself a writer, for instance, winning many awards throughout middle school and high school. And then came the books…
But to call myself a visual artist? To call myself a painter? Hell no! After watching my roommate work, I still felt you had to have a special artist license to even buy paint…
There is one visual form I felt reasonably comfortably approaching: collage. Born out of my love for making travel scrapbooks, collaging spoke to me because there didn’t seem to be competence involved. And I very much enjoyed the process of taking scraps and allowing them to develop into something meaningful when put together. As I began working with my own expressive arts mentor Christine Valters Paintner, I began to get braver about working with visual arts. Sure, I’d long kept some basic drawing materials in the office for my clients and out at Dancing Mindfulness retreats. Yet when I began working with Christine and realizing just how much Dancing Mindfulness as a program connected with the all-of-the-above nature of the expressive arts, I got braver about exploring my edge as an expressive artist.
I continued with collage and ventured into working with pastels and markers. I quickly found that visual arts had even more to teach me because I didn’t approach them with any kind of expectation about the quality of the product. There’s something to be said about being the worst kid in art class who was never chosen for any shows. Because competence was never my focus in visual art, I was naturally more open to just enjoying it, to being in process, and learning from what making just for fun revealed.
I credit crossing the paint threshold to my ex-husband after he saw how much I liked coloring and pastels. When I was going through an especially rough patch in the Fall of 2016, he bought me a paint-by-numbers kit. Although initially skeptical, I soon found that I enjoyed it even more than coloring books. There was something soothing and containing about having lines in which to work, yet my hand responded to the sensation of moving paint along a canvas. I loved everything about it; the colors, the smells, and yes, even the feeling of accomplishment when I saw the final product. There was some leftover paint and while at my local craft store on a run for some other supplies, I bought a small canvas and decided to use the leftover pain to express something original. I painted a mandala and it spoke to me very much.
I continued with this process for the next few months—finishing paint-by-numbers kits and then using the leftover paint to create something original. After a couple rounds of this process, I got brave enough to order some of my own paint off of Amazon and continue with my explorations. I approached it as something fun to do, something that let me play with color and texture and sensation and not be bound by the shackles of outcome.
A few months into this journey is where the painting that graces the cover of my latest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery revealed itself to me. And in this revelation came what is perhaps the greatest lesson that I ever received about the power of process: be open to where the unexpected, even the failures, may guide you. A pleasant surprise may blossom when you shed these expectations.
I laid down a foundation in gauche, the first time I ever experimented with this unique form closely related to watercolor. I also played around with using some shimmery paints that you can apply with a spray bottle. I liked the mystical ocean of color that was coming into existence! Then the idea came to me—paint a Hand of Fatima! This blue magic would certainly be an ideal backdrop for this symbol I’d come to adore. I printed out a copy of the hand online to follow. This unique pattern, sometimes referred to as a Hand of Hamhsa, seemed relatively easy to copy or trace, even for someone as unskilled as I. When I looked at the lopsided result of my attempt to paint the hand in white acrylic with a fine brush, I was disheartened.
“See, I ruined my cool blue background,” I huffed in frustration.
In the spirit of process, I rolled with that frustration, angrily ripping away a paper towel and I just started rubbing. I hoped that enough of it would come off so that I might be able to salvage some of the base. What emerged was the cool, rather mystical white outline of a flower that you now see on the cover of the book.
“Wow, the hand now looks like a cloud, or a flower,” I said.
I noticed that my raging by paper towel maneuver also made some very interesting patterns on the canvas that I just began filling in with gold… and then with green. And then as I noticed the flower take shape, I finished off the core image with some of the pinkish-magenta that now composes the flower itself.
I stood back in amazement, declaring, “I did that! It’s beautiful!”
And it was totally an accident, the fruit of staying in process and not being fixated on outcome.
From the moment I began writing Process Not Perfection, I knew that this image would be my book’s cover. For being in the process that birthed this painting is when I truly fell in love with the magic of expressive arts. I adore how the practices of expressive arts therapy invite me into a focus on process rather than perfection, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by a community of other expressive artists who inspire me to carry this lesson into all areas of my life.
To the process, my friends! And to the inevitable magic that will unfold from living a life in process…
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.