I bring my training as an art therapist to my Natural Dreamwork practice. Art therapy and Natural Dreamwork both recognize that the primary imagination gives us images saturated with feeling and that healing emerges when we let go our ego-defenses and allow these feeling-images to penetrate us.
One basic framework that art therapists are trained in is the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC), first mapped out by Vija Lusebrink and Sandra Kagen. (For those with therapy backgrounds who want to read more, I recommend the book Expressive Therapies Continuum: A Framework for Using Art in Therapy, by Lisa Hinz.) Explained briefly, the ETC facilitates engaging the kinesthetic, sensory, affective, perceptual, cognitive, and symbolic levels of the creative process. I think of these levels as the doorways into creativity, which help us cross the threshold into primary imagination.
Becoming familiar with how to personally access the multiple doorways of the Expressive Therapy Continuum can help dreamers deepen their relationship with the images and feelings offered by dreams. I won’t try to cover all the possible ETC pathways in one writing. Instead, this is the first in a series of reflections informed by the ETC, starting with the kinesthetic and sensory aspect of creativity.
When invited to create, people often react in conditioned ways. Before going further, I want to offer some perspectives to help free readers from this conditioning. Generally, we are taught to approach art from an external focus on making a finished product that will be judged by others. But, if stuck in externally focused conditioning, one common reaction is self-criticism and fear. You might say, “Oh, I’m not creative. I can’t draw a straight line. I’m not good at that. I’m not artsy.” Another common reaction, at the opposite end of the spectrum, occurs for those who are invested in identifying as talented artists capable of making impressive finished products for public display. Neither of these reactions are helpful stances for exploring dreams through art reflection. In fact, both are ego-driven ways of avoiding increased vulnerability.
The art reflections described here are for you and your dreamlife, and no-one else. The expressive arts approach is internal, focusing on the process of creating as a way to deepen inner experience and emotions. It doesn’t matter at all what the finished product looks like to anyone, even yourself! What truly matters is this – does your creative process help you feel more deeply what the dream needs you to feel?
Entering the creative process through the kinesthetic and sensory doorways can help shift us away from this self-conscious external focus, because both these doorways asks us to tune into our inner feeling of physical movement and sensation. Dreams are also very rich with movement and sensation.
The kinesthetic aspect of creativity focuses on movement, gesture, and embodied awareness. Expressive arts modalities that can help us engage kinesthetically with our dreams include authentic, mindful movement, dance, or using visual art materials such as clay, paint, and paper in order to experience the physical gestures, postures, and happenings within our dreams.
The sensory aspect of creativity focuses on the sensory experience of the art mediums, the wetness and pliability of clay, the fluidity of watercolor, the resistance of cardboard or paper to being torn or punctured, the softness of fabric and how it can be made to flutter, drape, or fray.
Following are three examples of art made to engage with my own dreams through the kinesthetic and sensory levels of the ETC.
The first example, “Shredded” explores a dream in which I am given a box full of newspaper, shredded into tiny pieces. I am told this paper is actually a shredded girl, and then the dream shifts, and I am the shredded girl, even as I hold the box and look inside at its contents. Following this dream, I gathered a pile of newspapers and sat, tearing the paper into tiny pieces until I had filled a large cereal box. I paid attention to the sensory feeling of the newsprint resisting being torn and then giving way. I felt how different it was to tear a full sheet of paper compared to nibbling away at the paper in tiny increments. This nibbling away hit home for me, helping me feel how injured I was by all the little sarcastic barbs, daily criticism and expectations of perfection that I grew up with, as well as all the self-criticism I nag myself with. As the pile grew, I also felt myself kinesthetically breaking apart and deconstructing the ego-story that I defend myself with because of this wounding. I felt my body letting go.
My second example, which I call “Stabbed”, explores a dream in which a man fell through my doorway into my arms, stabbed through the back with a pair of garden shears. In the dream, I felt concern for the man, but not horror. To experience more fully how painful and truly awful this wound to the man was, I started with a piece of cardboard. I felt the sensory quality of the cardboard, how it is tan, rough, a bit furry, and rigid, like the skin over the spine and ribs of a man’s mid-back. I then pushed a pair of garden shears through the cardboard and felt the kinesthetic qualities of the cardboard resisting, the blunt shears tearing the “skin” of the cardboard roughly and breaking through, gouging the cardboard in ragged ways. Finally, I used watercolor, with its sensory fluidity and wet staining qualities, to experience the seeping of blood from this gash. I felt more deeply how some essential part of my soul, who it felt touching to call “the gardener”, has been bluntly stabbed from behind and is in need of immediate help.
Finally, in response to a dream in which a man was sheltering an orphaned boy, I turned to clay to create, “Held”. The sensation of working with clay involves smelling its earthiness, feeling its temperature warming as it absorbs the warmth from one’s own hands, and touching its skin-like qualities of moist fleshiness. I smoothed water into the clay, stroking it as if I was massaging the muscles of the bodies I was shaping. As I pieced together the little boy, I felt in my own body the kinesthetic experience of crouching in a curled up, frightened way. And as I nestled the boy into the legs of the supporting man’s clay body, I felt nestled and supported. Finally, I wrapped the man’s clay arms around the boy and felt held and comforted. During the entire art meditation, I felt profound tenderness.
After making these art meditations, I often do not keep them. The garden shears are back in my garage and the stabbed cardboard was recycled long ago. The box of torn paper, made most recently, is calling me to burn it in a fireplace ritual of further transformation. The clay figure of sheltered boy, however, has found a home on the bookcase shelves in my art studio at the eating disorder clinic where I provide art therapy. Someday, I may bury this sculpture in my garden. But for now, it still holds healing energy for me, the tenderness still palpable. I also notice that teenagers who come to the art therapy studio are very drawn to it. They will pick it up, hold it with longing, and ask me about it, and I can feel the orphaned part of them longing for such an embrace.
These are just a few examples of how to enter your dreams through kinesthetic and sensory art explorations. As you can see from these examples, the materials used can be simple and easily accessed and the finished products can be imperfect and rough. Yet, these art meditations potently amplify the emotional medicine of our dreams and help us increase our fidelity to the primary imagination. I encourage all dreamers to continue tapping into the healing offered by dreams by engaging in expressive arts explorations.
Images by Liza Hyatt
Liza Hyatt, ATR-BC, LMHC is a Natural Dreamwork practitioner, board certified art therapist and licensed mental health counselor in Indianapolis. For more information about spiritual growth through dreamwork with Liza, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more about Liza on the About Us page of our website.
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