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Dealing with depths and darkness through Art

"To the Bottom" by Santiago Caruso

There are times when life takes us down. We feel either beaten down, or fallen, or abandoned, or defeated or overwhelmed by grief and other hard feelings. Without ever wanting to, we end up walking through times when the answers aren't easy. Sometimes, there are no answers. There may be a time of relative isolation from others, or from the typical workaday world. Or maybe, everything that made sense before, no longer makes sense. Instead of striding through life, we become wanderers.

While we all love to focus on the positive, the friendly and the optimistic, we must also get to know the unfriendly, the harsh, the lonely, and the despair. In these times, we are invited to come to know ourselves more deeply; and then we are called to open to feelings we have avoided or buried. Maybe there has been a trauma, and a strategy we have developed to keep ourselves safe from the memories or the feelings. Maybe we have a hatred that we are glossing over. Maybe we are just dislocated by life, such as the collective trauma of the Syrian refugees. Maybe your most cherished loved one has died.

These are the times and sensibilities we are not comfortable talking about. Our culture trains us to keep "negativity" or anything unpleasant to ourselves. We are trained to be emotionally dishonest because being emotionally honest often results in reprisals, alienation or disapproval. So what does a person do when they have been through something immense that occupies a lot of time and energy? What do you do when your responsibilities demand that you continue in your roles, but you are frozen in fear for reasons you don't understand?

Amos Nattini, "Satan resides at the Center of the Frozen Lake of Cocytus"

Look closely at this amazing work by Amos Nattini. Look at all the bodies under the frozen lake. It's amazing to me that nearly a hundred years ago, Nattini - who did this work as an illustration of Dante's Inferno - understood the relationship between frozen energy and "the Devil." Frozen areas of our psyches simply occupy energy; and thus liberating these aspects returns energy to us, for fresh life. These layers of frozen waters ( feelings that are stuck, or shocked) create "veils" over our lifestream and compromise our ability to meet life. We are all human, and this life leaves no one untouched by pain or disappointment; so in some ways we all deal with the 'devil' that take us down, but the benefic gift of delving into the depths, is fresh energy for a new way of stepping into life. It's like trading in old rocks for fresh plants.

So what can art do while we are in this "darkness?" Or more importantly, how can we draw upon the gifts of art? The great writer Alice Walker said, “Writing poems is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before.” She speaks boldly to a shadowy line between the will to live and the desire to exit this life, which more people experience than we would like to admit. Therefore I don't want to tiptoe around the very stark nature of some psycho-spiritual crises. For instance, a recent report on suicidal ideation found that over half of college students say they have contemplated suicide more than once. We are dealing with dark feelings, dark states of mind.

I will share some insights I gained when dealing with a depressive episode and yet feeling the desire to not be medicated. Here are some actions that can be done that really honor the dark passage while lifting the weight of sadness or despair. First, heavy physical labor is very medicinal. If you are depressed, don't hesitate to quit your desk job and take up stonemasonry or janitorial work. Drumming circles have also been scientifically proven to lift affect and lighten depression.

Artistically speaking, when dealing with anger, mosaics are a wonderful path. When dealing with grief (which is slower to heal, like a deep burn), taking some time to tune into just how it lives in you can honor the experience and lift the load -- illustrating where it lives in your body, what color it is, how big it is around and through you, is a wonderful thing to do.

Grief by Joshua Wait

Depression is challenging, but i will say your greatest art form is to MOVE. Simply getting out of bed, is an act of life. Simply allowing the fresh winds of life to blow over your cavernous mindset, is artistic. I don't want to underestimate what it takes to do small steps in the darkest hours. Art, however, can provide a beautiful means by which the very truth of our experience is transferred from inner to outer awareness. And the transferral itself, is healing. In the darkest part of a hard passage in life, only you can name the truth of your experience; but the naming dispels its power over you, and rather than it owning you, you own it, through naming, illustrating, drumming. It's important to convey the experience as accurately as possible, without regard for your level of development, artistically speaking. And then, over time, ask yourself, is there anything in my awareness beyond this grief, or this depression, or this fear? My point is, in order to honor the truth of your experience, it's important not to over-focus on one state or another - so-called "negative" feelings, or positive ones. Rather, the paint a portrait of your awareness as you understand it.

William Blake, Illustrations for the Divine Comedy

The great artist William Blake was a master at integrating the sublime and the sinister. He understood that great mystery, that the two constantly want to meet, and this is the opportunity to transmute old or aversive energies, but not without the full honoring of their existence. Have you befriended these awful states, or are you still fighting them, cursing them, pushing them away? It's our human tendency, but now we have arrive at a new era, of solar energy and demon-befriending.

In conclusion, art can be a powerful ally to walk through dark times, to expand the light of our awareness, and to heal or transmute aversive states. I want to leave you with this poem from the talented performer Heidi Rose Robbins, who also appreciates the power of beauty to move us:

What to do with Sadness

When sadness lingers,

When loneliness creeps in and sits beside you and will not leave,

When you can no longer feel a spark of joy in even a hidden corner,

Find something, anything, that is burning: a star, a porch lamp, a candle on the table.

Then imagine that light at the center of your chest,

And remember you are molten love.

The only thing to do with sadness is to introduce it to indestructible beauty.

The flame of love present in every living thing.

Start with a morning glory or a sparrow

Start with the spirited eyes of the woman who served you coffee.

Start with a poem. Say, "Sadness, meet cherry blossom."

"Despair, meet the 9th symphony."

"Grief, meet the eyes of a child."

And then, be very, very quiet, and let them converse for a time.

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