Years ago when I worked at a hospital, every day started with morning rounds, in which staff going off night shift gave us day shift staff members a comprehensive report on each patient. I am not a morning person, so rounds was a great way for me to start the day. I could just listen, ask the occasional question, and…doodle. I doodled through rounds constantly in my Week at a Glance book with my favorite pen at the time, a Rotring cartridge pen. It might have looked like I was still half asleep, or bored, or not listening, but that was actually not true. In fact, I think it was the opposite; I think I was in an exceptionally tuned in zone. Throughout the years, doodling has remained an art activity of choice for me, both personally and in work with clients.
We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing. -Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution
Doodling has gained more attention recently as a mindfulness technique. Good old doodling in book margins during class or meetings will probably always be around, but the use of more varied media and more methodized doodling techniques abound. Zentangle, for example, is a method of creating beautiful images by drawing structured patterns to enhance focus, relaxation, and creativity. When I searched doodling on youTube, I found a TED Talks presentation by Sunni Brown, a visual thinking consultant, instructional doodling videos, and many videos that people have made of their own doodles. Here’s a CBS report called The Higher Purpose of Doodling:
Another week, another school shooting, more dead. A lot of heartbreak and agony. Opinions, discussions, arguments, demonstrations. I thought I’d weigh in from one art therapist’s perspective.
People are traumatized by so many things. Most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with war, child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters. There’s plenty of that around. But people can experience trauma for many other reasons. Traumatic experiences usually involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves someone feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Objectively there may not be any apparent reason for someone to feel traumatized, but it is the subjective emotional experience that counts. An illness, accident, loss, or humiliation can be the cause of trauma, for example. A sense of abandonment can be traumatic. As we have seen, bullying traumatizes many victims. Trauma is more common than we’d all like to admit.
Anger is a hallmark of PTSD, a response to feelings of powerlessness and the loss of a sense of safety. Alternating states of hyperarousal and numbing are common, intensifying chaotic and overwhelmed feelings. There is a pervasive sense that danger is all around. A fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction to the threat, kicks in.
Back to volcanos:
An opening in the earth’s crust through which molten lava, ash, and gases erupt.
Something of explosively violent potential.
Volcanos are by far the most common image I have seen in the many years I have practiced art therapy. A volcano is kind of a perfect metaphor. So many of the traumatized clients I have seen struggle to contain a rage which is pushing to erupt. Most live in fear of their own rage, terrified of destroying those around them.
Some feel less aware of their own dormant volcanos, but their images convey that they may sense the impending shifting of tectonic plates that precedes an eruption.
You would not believe the size of my collection of volcano drawings, most of which I don’t have permission to show you here. These drawings can be seen as self-portraits, as the depiction of the subjective experience of their makers. Most of these artists had a healthy fear of their emotional volcanos. I always thought this child directed a huge wave at his volcano to put out the fire and make it safe for himself and those around him.
You help people by restoring safety, by helping them regain control, not by handing them the means to lose control and cause harm. People don’t want to cause harm. In my experience, they’re scared of their anger.
When someone is suicidal, we take away the sharps. With so much trauma in our midst, let’s make sure we take away the guns.
This was a big week for deaths. Pete Seeger, one of my lifetime inspirations. The brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. And…my dog Gus. Like Seeger, Gus was an old man (thirteen), but was in great shape for an old guy. So the suddenness was a shock. And if you love a pet, you know why the loss brought heartbreak. The real Day of the Dead happened a couple of months ago, but at my house, a little Día de Muertos art/music therapy is in order right now.
I’ve spent many years and many miles walking with Gus in Central Park. Since I’m a scavenger, I have collected hundreds of rusty wires that I’ve found on my walks. They’re double loop rebar ties that were used to tie wire fencing to the posts (now they use a heavy duty plastic type). The wires are lying around all over the park, although I may be the only person who considers them treasures. Those that were dropped and are intact have a loop on each end, have wonderful shapes, and are great for making mobiles and all kinds of other things. The twisted and broken finds are also great for flower stems, picture hangers, jewelry, all kinds of things.
This necklace documents our mornings spent together: years worth of Gus’s worn dog tags, rusty wires, and other found objects. The yin/yang dog tag at the center was an unusually great park find, and I think it belongs here, since life and death cannot exist without each other. I made this a bunch of years ago, and as we’ve grown older together, I’ve had more dog tags to add.
Here’s my all-time favorite dog song, by one of my favorite artists. A tribute to Gus and to all our beautiful dogs out there. The Dog Song by Nellie McKay.
The new year has me thinking about mandalas. Something about coming full circle, back to the beginning again. A mandala is a circle, a symbol of the universe. A Hindu or Buddhist mandala is a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used as an aid to meditation.
Some art therapists make mandala-making a primary part of their therapy practice. Although this is not true of me, I see a mandala as a representation of wholeness, and experience has shown me that creating mandalas can be very therapeutic. In spiritual traditions, mandalas may be used for focusing attention and establishing a sacred space. In therapy, creating a safe space is paramount, and focus and self-reflection are ongoing goals. With children that are very disorganized, that lack focus, that have difficulty containing themselves, a paper with a pre-drawn circle to work within can be very helpful. It creates a frame, a container, and the circle form surely contributes to a feeling of centeredness. According to Carl Jung, who wrote extensively about mandala symbolism, “The severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related.”
An eight year-old girl came to see me weekly for art therapy. She and two younger siblings landed in foster care because their father used regular, severe corporal punishment as his primary teaching and discipline strategy. She struggled with severe anxiety, among other things, and each week when I greeted her, her brow was furrowed with worry. But she loved to make art, and found some safety in the sessions. She was easily engaged and lively, and enjoyed the looseness and playfulness of the art process. But experience had taught her to contain herself and to avoid messing up at all costs. So when she did allow herself to loosen up, she could only enjoy it for a little while before the anxiety came flooding back.
In a memorable session, we spent 50 minutes blowing colored feathers into the air (her idea) with a hair dryer (my idea). After we had spent some time on this playful, silly, fun activity, I became aware that she was becoming anxious. This surfaced in the form of a kind of forced jocularity, a change from fun silly to nervous silly. And I knew that giving her a way to contain her anxiety (Jung’s “disorder and confusion of the psychic state”) was very important. So we brought things down to earth and made this mandala (Jung’s “construction of a central point to which everything is related”).
This time lapse video of Tibetan lamas creating a sacred sand mandala is fascinating to watch. It is over 15 minutes long and spans a four-day process. It’s a slow start, but if you can stick with it, I think you will find that the simple observation of the amazing process is a meditation, and the magnificence of what emerges over time is a revelation. For those who are not Tibetan sand mandala-savvy, there’s a surprise ending.
The mission of Camp AmeriKids: to enhance the lives of youth living with the challenges of HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease by providing an enriching summer camp experience, year-round skill building and a supported transition to adulthood. To those of us who are part of the camp community, camp is family. An all-inclusive family. We all, camper and staff alike, feel that camp has changed our lives.
I wrote this after my first summer as part of the Camp AmeriKids program staff as an arts & crafts counselor. I know, I know, very long-winded! I guess I just can’t say enough about camp. If you found the time to read it, I’d be grateful. Maybe you can find something in it that resonates with you, too.
At Camp AmeriKids, the new year has a particular meaning to the camp community. Steve Kidd, our program director, explains:
Camp welcomes donations! Camp welcomes volunteers! Please check us out. And have a healthy and happy new year.