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Living with Ghosts
(and other reflections)

Using Expressive Arts to Process Current + Past Life Trauma


Seeing My Shadow and Light | Charcoal on glued pieces paper © 2021 Jacqueline Stuart for Dreams + Shadowlands

The expressive arts approach is always an invitation. We always have the option to opt out of a particular exercise, or to alter the creative process to meet our specific needs.


About Expressive Arts

The expressive arts approach is a multiarts method that includes arts, rituals, imagination, and creative processes. Expressive arts can help us connect with deeper aspects of ourselves by tapping into the unconscious. The process is intermodal—meaning it incorporates various art disciplines including movement/dance, sound/music, visual arts, improvisation, poetry, and drama—and combines verbal and non-verbal communication. This approach lends itself well as a therapeutic tool not only for personal growth and development, but for any trauma-informed work.


Using expressive arts to work through current and past life trauma could help open the healing process in a manner that is safe, gentle, and creative.

Expressive Arts is an Invitation

The expressive arts approach is always an invitation. We always have the option to opt out of a particular exercise, or to alter the creative process to meet our specific needs. Expressive arts encourage us to access our responsive and spontaneous traits as a way to inform the different kinds of media that we use.


Things Come to Light Through the Process of Creating

As mentioned earlier, expressive arts enable us to get in touch with the realm of the unconscious. It also eases the flow of expressing emotion without having to use words. Expressive arts places special emphasis on the process and not the product.


Photo by Steve Johnson | Unsplash

The act of creating enables us to work through the issues that may otherwise be difficult to confront. Setting an intention prior to engaging with expressive arts (e.g., “I want to understand how to access my courage”) can help offer some guidance and structure to the process. The key factor is to not analyze the process as it unfolds, but instead to be present to the process of creating and receptive to whatever surfaces.


Expressive arts can allow for a wordless form of expression to naturally develop, allowing us to process trauma in other ways that may not be wholly accessible through the spoken language.

Expressive Arts for Current and Past Life Trauma

Expressive arts is merely one modality that can positively help us process trauma. The section below suggests an expressive arts process for anyone who has dealt with any sort of traumatic event, be it in this life or in a previous one. Although this blog post was written with trauma in mind, the process listed below is useful for all sorts of issues.


Trauma is trauma no matter when or how it happened. To make things more confounding, trauma that occurs in this life may be a repeat of a similar trauma that originated in a previous life. Using expressive arts to work through current and past life trauma could help open the healing process in a manner that is safe, gentle, and creative.



Creatively Speaking…

Webster’s Dictionary defines creativity as “the ability to create or the quality of being creative.” Existential psychologist Rollo May (1975) defines creativity as “the process of bringing something new into being” (p. 37), which aligns to the idea that the creativity is a wholly absorbing encounter where one is attuned to the visions and/or process during the act of creativity.


Characteristics of a Creative Person

The following list are some the characteristics of a creative person.


1. a sense of wonder

2. a heightened awareness of the world

3. an openness to inner feelings and emotions

4. a curious, exploratory, adventuresome spirit

5. imagination

6. intuitive thinking

7. personal involvement in work

8. divergent thinking

9. the tendency to play with ideas


The Creative Process Can be Seen as a Five-Stage Method:

1. statement of intention

2. gathering

3. explosion

4. assimilation

5. cognition


The Connection Between Creativity and Spirituality

There are similarities between spirituality and the creative process. These traits include:


1. an intense focus and awareness that is incapable of being broken by eternal distractions

2. a dissolution of space and time

3. ability to be open and receptive

4. increased conscious awareness

5. commitment toward a project

6. willingness to enter into the unknown




Person-centered expressive arts therapist Natalie Rogers (1993) states that by “using our creativity for awareness, release, insight, and action…leads us to the path of spirituality” (p.188). Similarly, transpersonal psychologist Frances Vaughan (1985) states that “nowhere is the relationship between the mundane and the transcendent more explicitly revealed than in creative expression” (p. 155).


But accessing creativity can be a delicate thing. Have you ever refused to delve into a creative project fearing that you lacked the talent to do so? Expressive arts can help establish a sense of what humanist psychologist Carl Rogers calls “psychological safety.” When we remove the internal critic and simply allow the intuitive expressive arts process to guide us, surprising things can emerge. Likewise, letting go of product-fixated outcomes allows us to become more processed-oriented.


Profound things happen when we stop getting the way of ourselves and allow our inner knowing to help us speak our truth.

Creatively Delving Into the Trauma


Before Starting…

Consider working with a trauma-Informed expressive arts healer/therapist/doctor

Be it a certified therapist, a shaman, a coach, a teacher, etc.—trauma informed professionals can be found throughout various disciplines. Whomever we decide to work with, it is important to make sure the provider is ethical and offers a safe and supportive environment. Looking for a trauma-informed professional who also uses expressive arts can be extremely useful particularly when dealing with trauma. Expressive arts can allow for a wordless form of expression to naturally develop, allowing us to process trauma in other ways that may not be wholly accessible through the spoken language.


Creatively Express Our Pain, But Staying Safe While Doing It

Through the act of creating, we can process the trauma, but be prepared to have painful memories to surface. So long as we feel safe and we are not a threat to ourselves or to others, we should release whatever comes up by channeling it into an art form and giving it the space it needs to inform our progress. It is important to allow ourselves to explore new ways of being—to find our own rhythm and to simply run with it. Profound things happen when we stop getting the way of ourselves and allow our inner knowing to help us speak our truth.



Let’s Begin!

Caveat: Again, safety first, so checking in with a trained professional about what is safe for each of us to explore and process is essential. Grieving is deep, complex, and nonlinear so honoring whatever stage we may be at rather than forcing it is another important factor.


1. Choose a calming environment.

2. Gather materials that speak to your heart and soul. Which tools will best illuminate your path?

3. Light some candles or dim the lights, put on some music that inspires and/or calms you.

4. Ground and center before you begin, then set an intention for what you are looking to achieve from the creative experience.

5. Sit quietly for a moment and when you feel ready, open yourself up to all the sensations that come up for you about the traumatic event. You may see colors, you may smell a scent.





Expressive Arts Approach is Not About the Product, but About the Process.

We can draw, sing, dance/move, write, and/or meditate. I highly encourage a multimodal approach where participants can try various creative ways of being. In other words, moving a little out of our comfort zone is encouraged. Consider an eclectic approach by incorporating various processes and media.


Here is what a typical session may look like:


1. Begin with a short meditation to ground and center.

2. Draw for 20 minutes.

3. Reflectively write about what you drew and what came up for you during the drawing process.

4. Get up and move your body to somatically process the trauma.

5. Use shamanic drumming to help with the trance-like journeying process.

The most important thing is that you honor what calls to you most. Through the process of expressive arts, you will know what aligns best for your sensibilities.



References


Allen, P. B. (2005). Art is a spiritual path. Boston, MA: Shambhala.


Bella, K., & Serlin, A. (2013). Expressive and creative arts therapies. In H. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology (pp. 529-543). Hobokin, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.


Donohue, K. T. (2011). Expressive arts therapy. In M. A. Runco & S. R. Pritzker (Eds.). Encyclopedia of creativity (pp. 497-501). Burlington, MA: Academic Press.


Ganim, B. (1999). Art & healing: Using expressive art to heal your body, mind, and spirit. Echo Point Books & Media.


Grace, M. H. (1995). Expressive arts as a doorway to the divine [M.A., Prescott College]. http://search.proquest.com/pqdtglobal/docview/230976906/abstract/4B0524D24F604AE3PQ/1


Goslin-Jones, T & Richards, R. (2018). Mysteries of creative process: Explorations at work and in daily life. In L. Martin and N.Wilson (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of creativity at work (pp.71-106). London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Halprin, D., & Weller, J. S. (2009). The expressive body in life, art, and therapy: Working with movement, metaphor, and meaning.


May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York, NY: Norton.


Richards, R. (2007). Introduction. In R. Richards Everyday creativity and new views of human nature: Psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives (pp. 3 - 22). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rogers, N. (1993). The creative connection: Expressive arts as healing. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.


Zausner, T. (2007). Artist and audience: Everyday creativity and art. In R. Richards Everyday creativity and new views of human nature: Psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives (pp. 75 - 90). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.



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