On building a complicated relationship with gratitude

I wanted to write a quick post about something that has been troubling me for a few days. I was watching a YouTube video the other day that I thought was on personal finance but turned out to be on ‘manifesting wealth’ using the law of attraction philosophy popularised by the book The Secret (have not read it, and I don’t plan to). In this video, (which I cannot find the link to and don’t want to promote anyway) a very attractive wealthy looking woman explained that you needed to behave gratefully and respectfully towards the universe if you wanted to be successful in life. The Universe is basically an authoritarian Victorian patriarch handing out sweeties to the most pious and well behaved among us. Apparently.

For some reason this just really annoyed me. Most of the people I know who are successful have got there through differing combinations of luck, various forms of privilege, and hard graft. Many of them (but not all!) are very grateful for their success, but it was, for most of them, the work that got them there. I think the universe, in it’s infinite beauty and chaos, (and working on the unlikely assumption that it has some form of unifying consciousness) has better things to do that to check in which my savings rate and make adjustments according to my gratitude. I just don’t think it cares. It has better things to do. Like build planets and ignite stars. To scatter about the raw materials of life itself.

Having worked in both psychology and mental health I have also been aware for some time of positive psychology idea that keeping track of the things you are grateful for may help ameliorate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This was also something I was uncomfortable with because when you have anxiety or depression that is disruptive of your ability to do or enjoy things, I think you legitimately have a something to be really pissed off about. Telling people in that situation to sit and count their blessings feels patronising and a failure to grasp the severity of the situation.

That said, since the beginning of January I have actually been making more of an effort to take stock of the things I am grateful for. Things like having a boyfriend who cooks me lovely vegan food when I am sick, or being able to swim outside in the silvery UK sea. I can afford to reduce my hours at work in order to indulge my creative parts, when most people cannot. I have been having fertility treatment for about 5 months now (which is kind of rough) and I have just found out that I have access to more options than I expected on the NHS, and I am grateful for that too. And you know, I have been feeling kind of better lately….

You are here by Jenny Lawson

So being ill can have an up side sometimes. I’ve been unwell with some awful head cold [wo]man flu and haven’t been able to do much work. I’ve been mostly sleeping, drinking honey and lemon, and watching telly, with a little web surfing on the side. The web surfing turned out to be a little too exciting for my ill brain and I’ve had to wait a few days before I was able to form a coherent thought about this.

I came across Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, at least a year ago through one of those Amazon ‘and you may also like’ recommendations.  I loved it, having been bought up in the country with my own bunch of eccentrics, and from there I went on to read Let’s pretend this never happened, which I also loved. These books are very funny, and great books for anyone who has ever wanted to hide under a table at a public event (or regularly finds themselves taking a ‘time out’ in the office loo). Earlier in the week I wasn’t very well and couldn’t do much more than sit in bed and surf the internet. I spent some of that time diving into the Bloggess website and it was the first time I was able to have a really good read about her colouring book You are Here.

I really think this post is worth looking at for anyone who uses arty creative things as part of their efforts to manage mental health. Jenny Lawson writes vividly about her own arts practice (I have no idea if she would call it that, but her drawings are works of art) continually using drawing and doodling as a way of channeling negative or distressing thoughts or emotions. She is releasing a colouring book based on these drawings, alongside some short stories that work with the drawings, and what a beautiful thing it is (at least it looks that way from the pictures – the physical book won’t be available for a few months). Just go and look at the sweeping curves and swirling lines of some of these drawings. I really love how these drawings are intricate, and delicate, effective in evoking fairytale and myth. Somehow exciting and soothing to look at at the same time. I’ve ordered my copy, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying getting creative with this set of drawings. Or just owning them. Anyway, go and look. Now.

A bit more on ‘On not being able to paint’

I’ve been digging into Marion Milner’s book ‘On not being able to paint’ and have been really enjoying this. The book describes Milner’s efforts in trying to learn how to paint, and she takes a psychoanalytic perspective on this. I’m no expert in psychoanalysis and have definitely had to re-read a few bits and pieces to get a better appreciation of their meaning. Even so I have been enjoying the book as an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the creative process and what that can mean for the creative individual. This week I’ve been particularly struck by this quote:

“It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an over whelming of a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately, but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love.”

Last week I struggled to even begin to describe the quality of the light that was created through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia. I think also I was  in complete awe of the sheer scale of that creative effort. I think in part this came from knowing the personal, internal effort that would have been involved in committing the vision of something on that scale to paper, and to see it built, and the vulnerability that would require. This is possibly why this quote has spoken to me this week.

On finishing things, or, I made a thing, eep!

When I started writing blog posts about the connection between creativity and mental wellbeing I initially thought that I would write one, let it loose, see how it flew. Then I had an idea for another one, but I thought I would run out of steam on this thought stream pretty quickly, but then had another idea, and then another. So far each little thought seems to lead to another little thought, that is just enough of an idea to write a blog post about. Go figure.img_0101

Most of the things I blog about in this ‘series’ are just my ideas about theories that I know of and that I find useful in making sense of myself, and of my experiences. If working as a researcher in psychology and medicine and mental health for the last 12 years has taught me anything it is this: there are many splendid varieties of ‘human’. What works for one person will not work for the next, or will work but in combination with a third thing. For many people it is possible to manage their wellbeing through a healthy diet, a decent amount of exercise and a little enjoyable down time. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough for me, there needs to be something….else.

One of my blocks over the last few years has been in finishing things. I don’t know if this is a typical ‘scanner problem’ but I am pretty good at getting dug into a project, and then, about half way through there seems to be another project that I need to start, so I do. And then another. And another. The banner picture on my blog at the moment is a blanket I made for my sister. It took a whopping 7 years to finish that baby off. 7 years. And I was so proud of it that I took pictures of it before I handed it over to use on the banner of this blog. So in contrast to that, this little guy in the picture above only took around six months. And look, he lights up…

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Many of my ongoing projects are quite ambitious, there is a play, a film and a novel, and now a book about art and wellbeing. I’ve struggled to get close to finishing any of these things and this was beginning to cause lots of creative angst. One of the strategies I’ve come across in the mental health world, and in the online world of inspirational businesses, is the idea of goal setting. Of particular use to me has been setting smaller goals, by which I mean developing much smaller projects that are I could potentially finish in a few weeks (it still takes a few months but never mind). I’m finding that in actually finishing some things I feel much more motivated to return to those more ambitious, difficult projects, and I feel better for it. It’s helping, that the play is actually looking in good shape to send somewhere soon.

 

Creativity and Catharsis

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I’ve been blogging over the last few weeks about how an arts practice can be a positive thing for wellbeing and mental health. In my last post I was musing on how in the process of making things we transform one set of things (paper and paint, thoughts and feelings) into something else, something beautiful.

I’m interested in the idea that as part of the process of making something, it is possible to use thoughts, feeling, ideas or experiences as a raw material for craft. The concept of artistic expression as a cathartic process is not new. The idea is that the artist may not only use their practice as a medium through which to express feelings, but in the process may somehow expel or ‘purge’ negative emotions from their systems and in doing so would be relieved from them. For many people some negative emotions hold such power that it may be difficult to actually articulate them. A sweep of dark paint across a canvas, or beating of drums or moving the body through dance, may be the way in which a person may actually be able to give some form to those emotions. Once the paint is on the canvas a person may be able to ‘see’ what they are feeling externalised, and feel the emotion is no longer contained within them, but has been ‘set free’. I understand this reading of catharsis as a little like mental vomiting, expelling what is noxious to be rid of it.

A few years ago I was very interested in how story and narrative may have an impact on us humans, and I read the work of (and had the privilege of meeting with) Prof. Keith Oatley, who was very interested in the idea of fictional literature as a kind of emotional simulation. He had a slightly different reading of catharsis that drew on a different translation of the Greek roots. He described how catharsis could be interpreted not as a purging, but as a process of ‘clearing away’ or making sense of emotional turmoil. The experience of being in mental distress can be highly confusing. Some have suggested that through the process of creating art out of an emotional situation, it can be possible to make sense of it. The act of externalising emotion through that sweep of paint on the canvas may not really be effective in removing the emotion from the inside, but what it may be able to do is help make sense of it so that it is ever so slightly easier to live with.

Making and mental health: Arts as a transformative practice

img_0076-1I have been musing over the last few weeks in what has turned into a little blog series about how having an arts practice can be a positive thing for mental health. It certainly works on some level for me. Over the last few years I keep coming back to the idea art as a transformative practice in the projects I have started (and often not really finished – I have the multipotentialite problem of too many projects and not enough time). One of the characters in a novel and then in a play I have been (am still) working on was directly concerned with this idea, and I’ve often spoken informally to artists of have had similar thoughts about it.

The act of Making is one of transformation. We take all manner of things, objects, paper, paint and glue and in combining those things through various techniques we transform them into something new and possibly unique. For many artists one of those ingredients is feeling. The act of using good feeling or bad and channelling that into a project to transform into something else is an profoundly creative act. The idea that emotions can feed creative work has been around for a long time, as has the stereotype of the ‘troubled artist’, so I am doubtful that this is a new idea to many reading this. I think it is this ability of an arts practice to allow the expression of feeling that can make it particularly positive. It can be a way of expressing, and gaining clarity, on what is going on for a person without requiring them to directly verbalise it. Potentially for many, expressing themselves through visual means, or through music, makes far greater sense that attempting this through what can be the very limiting medium of words.

I’m not suggesting that all art is about this process, for many art can also be a restful or pleasing diversion. But frequently the art that speaks to me most speaks to me on this level. A really useful way of thinking about this for me came through reading Amanda Palmer’s Book ‘The Art of Asking’ (I really enjoyed this one, more on this another time). There are a lot of useful ideas in here, but the one that grabbed my interest in particular was the idea of the artist as ‘Sin Eater’. Traditionally the Sin Eater was a person who may live at the margins of a community. Their role was to take on the sins of a person who had recently died so that person would be able to pass on to heaven. In Welsh communities the Sin Eater may visit with a family and break bread and drink ale over the body of a loved one to ‘eat’ their sins. In ‘The Art of Asking’ Amanda Palmer speaks about the artist as the sin eater, as a figure who is able to take on the sadness, anger or distress of others and transform that into something beautiful, into art. I found this description particularly useful to think about, and in understanding the function art can play in helping us understand ourselves.

Pleasure in working my craft

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I’ve been blogging over the last week or two about how making has been helpful to me when it comes to mental health and managing anxiety. When I first began to contemplate this subject on this blog I drew the link between mindfulness and making, and wrote about how I manage to reach my most mindful state when, well making. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this and while I think in principle this definitely holds, there are ways in which my arts practice diverges significantly from the practice of mindfulness.

In a course I recently completed on mindfulness we were taught to experience things without ascribing value to it, or to become attached to it. The mind has a tendency to attach to things that are pleasurable and to try to prolong that sensation while trying to avoid sensations that are uncomfortable or distressing. One of the ideas behind mindfulness is that the pursuit of pleasure and the attempts to avoid pain are one of the root causes of anxiety, addiction and mental distress. Mindfulness teaches us to sit in the present moment with either pleasure or pain and to acknowledge that it is temporary. The good and the bad both will soon pass. So saying you enjoyed something or found pleasure in something is giving it a value, and from what I understand, not really what mindfulness is about.

While I would say that the moments in which I am making things are probably some of the moments where I am most present, I would also say I derive a deep pleasure from some of the making activities. A lot of the work I’ve been developing involves silhouettes, and I am particularly attached to the use of strong curved lines. I find drawing or cutting a really satisfying curved line to be particularly enjoyable. To be a sensual experience. I am happy, possibly driven, to repeat that experience over and over. When I was studying for my PhD a few years ago now I came across the concept of ‘flow’, which is described as a psychological state in which a person is fully engaged in an activity, is deriving pleasure from that activity and feels energised by it. I think for many people doing art work may provide that state, and this is a positive, healthy state to be in.

I think that it may not be the norm to talk this way about craft. I’ve seen people, particularly (but definitely not exclusively) women, being belittled for their enjoyment of their creative work, as if what they do is trivial. I think I’m lucky. I come from a family of artists and it is totally normal to speak this way about doing something creative. My mum and dad can get pretty caught up in describing a painter’s use of light, a particularly well set up shot in a film or a good solid line. We take creative work seriously and being surrounded by that environment as I grew up was a helpful thing I think. It taught me that putting effort and thought into creative work, whatever that creative work may be, is not trivial.

Making and mental health: slowing down

A few weeks ago I posted a piece about my making and mindfulness. I’ve had the day off work today and have been thinking a bit more about why making things seem to work so well for me in bringing my stress levels down. I think in part it’s because I’m experimenting at the moment with collage, paper and glue. I’m in the process of working on a few designs for decorative pieces and because I’m a bit of a scanner obviously I seem to feel the need to work a bit in all of them at once. It may sound hectic, but moving between projects seems to ensure that I give each stage on each project a little time to mentally marinade. 


I’ve been trying techniques that enforce a slowing down. Even given a good run it can take days to get from an idea in my head to something that looks like an actual piece of work. I’ve been soaking card to mould it into various shapes and building up works through layers of paper of different thickness and texture. At each stage things have to be left to dry out and set before I can move onto the next thing, which removes the need for urgency. Indeed rushing around on these projects tends to ruin them, so slow craft is definitely the best approach here. I think as a consequence my mind also moves a bit slower, but is still very much occupied with the design details, which reduces the likelihood of anxiety creeping up on me. 

Business Bites: the ‘getting started’ to do list

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I think I’ve been blogging for about a month now and I thought it would be a good time to take stock of where I’ve got to on this ‘I’ll just set up my own business, that’ll be simple’ path I’ve taken myself down. So far I’ve done the following;

  • Bought a domain name
  • Set up a blog
  • Had a few people actually read the blog (eeek)
  • Read a few books on business
  • Bought some other books, not all on business
  • Outed myself as having both anxiety and a strange affection for kissing gates
  • Started to work out what it is that I actually want to do with this whole business thing (probably should have started here but never mind)

There is much more to do, and each time I learn a new thing I find a door opens to a whole new set of possibilities, and that my ideas evolve all the time as a consequence. This week I have come across 2 things that have helped me enormously. The first is this book on tax and accounting by Emily Coltman called ‘Refreshingly simple finance for small business’ which has already answered several questions I had about tax and what I would need to do about that. I do recommend this to anyone who is just starting out. I think one of the anxieties that stopped me from getting started sooner was being put off by the idea that the paper work would be really complicated, and this book was pretty re-assuring on that point.

The second is this website called Puttylike.com, which is run by Emilie Wapnick. She talks about a category of people she calls multipotentialites, who are people who have multiple interests and never quite fit into a particular niche. She strongly encourages people not to try to force themselves into a niche, but rather to find a way of bringing those interests together into what she calls a Renaissance Business. This works for me, I think I’m one of those people. In my time I have studied medicine, psychology, social sciences, animation, and film making. My parents are both artists so my childhood was like being in art school. And I like walking in the woods. And kissing my boyfriend at each and every kissing gate we encounter. So I think the next thing for me is to wok out if these things can be bought together into something co-herent. It’s really helpful to know there are other people out there doing this stuff, but at the moment I’ve only really discovered American peeps talking about it. Any UK multipotentialites out there?

In a recent mindfulness course I took my tutor spoke quite a lot about the ‘beginners mind’ which is the stat that you are in when you encounter something for the first time. What does it look like? What it it’s texture? Does it smell?  At the moment I am encountering all of these new ideas and it feels very much like I’m frequently in a beginner’s mind state, which is having some knock on effects that I hadn’t expected. It’s also motivating me to go back to some unfinished projects and take another look, which can only be a good thing I think. It feels like each new little thing I discover is one small pebble, but over time I’m going to have enough stones to build something pretty cool. Exciting times…

Making and mindfulness

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I recently did a mindfulness course to help manage the anxiety I’ve been experiencing around work and other aspects of my life (mostly work at the moment). We did lots of meditations and breathing exercises and lying on the floor, and it was helpful. But taking the practice out of that classroom and into my everyday life has been a bit of a challenge. The one place I have found that mindfulness fits quite naturally with what I do is where I’m in the middle of making something.

I find I can sit and cut the little beauties above for quite some time and keep my sense of presence with the motion of the scissors and the curve of the petal. I use these flowers or stars or whatever you want to see in them in several ongoing projects at the moment, accumulating bagfuls of different coloured flowers as some painters may accumulate paint.

I know many people are finding colouring books helpful, and I have some really beautiful ones, but I have to say that they are not for me. I don’t seem to be able to focus in the same way when I’m working to someone else’s design. The other creative space I have found for a mindful practice is crochet. I’m only just learning this one, but there is something calming about the process of producing loop after loop, and working those looks into a growing creative whole.

There has been much said about the mental health benefits of creative work. I suspect that the mindful element to it is only part of what is happening and the way in which art can provide a useful channel for expressing, sharing and understanding emotions is potentially far more powerful in helping people. But I’ve found in my own creative space, a little work on mindfulness has been very helpful for me.