Your Book of Life: considering imagination and the personal narrative

What’s your story?

You might feel the weight of such a casual yet dauntingly rhetorical question. Or maybe, in the age of social media, you’ve learned the shorthand: either something short and poetic, or a neat string of definitive one-worded sentences: Root fact. Current Fact. Aspiration/Raison d’être. Mostly, though, maybe the real feeling is: where do I start?

The first thing to realize: the reason why it may feel daunting is that it is important.

As we interact with the world, we experience change and our minds intuitively navigate it. Paolo Knill explains it as rituals of change:

Individuals’ or communities’ situations of change usually have ritual containers within which they are framed in space and time.

The idea of rituals of change nods to how human experience is interpreted as narrative: we sense life in chapters, milestones, eras. Sometimes this encompasses chronological sense, but narrative is beyond chronology when change is considered in a way that we look at how it impacts us as people. We are not just dots on a timeline going from A to B. We are people living lives. We have stories. We are stories.

Stories shaping our thoughts and our lives

In 1988, psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of a curious study about personal narratives. Bruner was interested in how people told stories and how language impacted their meaning and thought process. In a fascinating case of listening to the stories of a family, Bruner proposes a hypothesis that language does not only express, but can, out of habit – or ritual, to connect to Knill – begin to structure experience itself:

I believe that the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory, for not only guiding the life narrative up to the present but directing it into the future.

In this light it feels sound to say that we need to be keepers of our story as if our lives depend on it – because it does. What we say about ourselves and our lives will eventually begin to shape us and our lives.  However, this is not only a matter of constantly taking note of and reflecting on what happens in our lives (though this is vital).

Stuck in suspension in front of a brick wall

To go through change means to move away from life as we know it: “entering devotional space for a period of time”. Thinking about change or transition as space is interesting in this way. To illustrate: perhaps you’ve felt suspended. Unmoving. Stuck. At a dead end. If you’re a writer, no matter how many pages you’ve rewritten, everything feels like the exaggerated combination of metaphors in the subheading of this portion of the blog.

Sometimes, we will walk into, run into change that we don’t have a ritual for, that we don’t have previous reference of. We’ll walk into a part of the story we have never read or seen, felt or told. Knill identifies times like this–or rather, spaces like this–often caused by disruption, loss, or conflict. The more grave the disruption to life as you know it, the more important it is to respond mindfully, lest our story begin to become a fuzzy picture, break down, or even be locked away and forgotten.

Drawing from imagination

When we are pushed to our limits and are unable to move forward to navigate through change, it can be described as a ‘lack of play range’ (Knill, 2005). Play in this context refers to an active process of interaction led by imagination, openness and even joy, with a sense of curiosity and discovery.  If you’re associating play with children right now, you’re on the right track.  The way we played as children – it helps to still know how to do it and to be in that disposition when we are older. Children navigate change intuitively and with this pure sense of openness, and this is essential in gaining fresh perspective to challenges as adults.

If we are in a situation challenges our sense of openness, the solution is to open us up. This is where expressive arts therapists begin their work: increasing the ‘play range’. Childlike but not childish, engaging in a sense of play as adults means to connect to our innate wellspring of imagination. Through imagination we create a nuanced narrative, an ‘alternative world experience’ (Knill, 2005) that helps inform us of our realities and our potential to move through it and even grow from it. It we listen to it, our lives will tell us what to do next.

Knill (2005) quotes Dutch writer Harry Mulisch (1999) to explain the connection between imagination and story:

… the storyteller is telling the story; he is also not the essential story teller. The story as such as the essential story teller. The story itself is telling the story; from the first sentence on, the story is a surprise for the story teller, and this is known to all story tellers.

Let’s not forget to be surprised, and remember just how much our life responds to us if we allow it. Look inward, read into you, and discover something new about your story.

Bruner, Jerome. “Research Currents: Life as Narrative”. Language Arts 65.6 (1988): 574–583. Web. Retrieved from

Knill, Paolo J., Ellen G. Levine, and Stephen K. Levine. Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2005. Print.

Mulisch, H. Die Prozedur. Munchen: Hanser, 1999. Print.

For more information on expressive arts therapy, or to express interest in taking an introductory course on the Expressive Arts, email us. We’d love to hear from you. 

Expression and healing as a universal language: notes from art therapy around the world

The call for the arts to encourage healing and resilience has brought our Director, Gina Alfonso, around the world to answer it. Although she holds clinic in Washington D.C., she has been across Asia and Africa, and is currently in South America. She works with both teachers and children, often from groups that are marginalized or have gone through trauma.

photo-21Classroom as a healing space

With background in education for grassroots communities in the Philippines, Gina’s practice in therapy unpacks the healing potential of the classroom. A productivity-centered place such as a classroom is where children and teachers have the opportunity to be in a context that need not reflect their current challenging situations. Training teachers in the arts with purpose to respond to this kind of context, trains them to be companions rather than just teachers.

The positive art experience is key to equipping teachers in becoming companions that are process-centered, as opposed to instructors that are performance-centered. With the help of imagination, creative expression can turn learning spaces into healing spaces, too – with the arts as a language that bridges different backgrounds, cultures, and personal stories.

Companionship in process

The role of the art therapist is to be perceptive towards diverse and nuanced expressions. Throughout her experience in different cultures, Gina has realized that language and culture barriers are transcended by the impact of full engagement in process and expression. She calls this the ahamoment – and it’s what she looks out for in every workshop and session she holds.

The aha moment is personal, and almost completely out of the hands of a facilitator. This is what makes it impactful to the one experiencing it.

The arrival at a moment of self-discovery is something an art therapist can help prepare the path to, but she is never there at the end, preceding the individual’s arrival. For the therapist, there is no space for judgement in this arrival; there is only the delicate work of observation, acceptance, and being led to work with exactly where an individual is at.

Expression : Expansion

In an expressive arts workshop in China, Gina had a participant who was a professor. Fixated on the theory behind the process, she found herself skeptical at the end of the workshop. It was only after six months, in a follow-up workshop, that she arrived at her aha moment.

“Now I get it. Now I understand how the arts can be so valuable for healing. Something clicked inside me,” she had said. “I have never felt this free in my life, and really appreciate how this movement taught me something new about myself. Now I feel like I’m ready to be a better trainer.”

Sometimes, all it takes to be more proficient at the work we do, or to be better people in our community, or to be better for ourselves — is to understand ourselves more deeply. It’s not an easy journey to get to the aha moment. We have to leave our comfort zones, be brutally honest with ourselves, be more fiercely compassionate to ourselves, and walk alongside uncertainty. The expressive arts and the process of creativity doesn’t promise to solve problems, though it may well do so in some cases. But it does promise to teach you something about yourself — to expand your vision and discover your inner strength on your own terms, through expression that can only come forth from you. And the great news is that creative expression is inherent in every one of us: a personal journey, but a universal experience.

Photos: from Gina’s workshops with a community situated near the Thai-Burma border. Taken by Mitos Urgel of WEAVE Women’s Network, Mae Hong Son, Thailand 

Art for empathy

When was the last time you stepped into an art gallery? Or marvelled at the drawing of a 2-year-old? Or drew or made something yourself, and didn’t have dismissive thoughts for lack of artistic aptitude?

If you can’t remember the last time you appreciated art, or can’t remember the last time you were proud of something you drew — I invite you now, today, to pause and embark on a little project.

The House Project

You’ll need: paper/notebook; writing instrument of your choice

  1. Draw a house on a piece of paper or in a notebook. (No need to think too much about it – let it come naturally.)
  2. Approach someone nearby, and ask them to draw a another house. If you have a notebook, it may be fun to ask them to draw it on whichever page they like.
  3. Ask them to sign their creation.
  4. Approach another person and ask them to do the same.
  5. Keep going until you are content with your collection of houses.

There is a likelihood that even if those houses are ‘just’ a triangle-square combo with hatched circles for a bay window, you’ll still appreciate it. Especially if there are a whole book of them. But what I am excited to tell you about this little project is that even the most basic assembly of shapes is a very honest piece of expression.

Drawing a house is one of the earliest creative activities most of us make as young children. I see it often in pre-school: motifs of home emergent when children are given free rein to make or draw whatever they want. The significance of this in The House Project — particularly if you’re a little older than the days of the triangle-square combo — is that it brings you to be aware of yourself right now, and of yourself however many years ago.

Subsequently, the second part of The House Project allow you to bring that awareness in your connection with others. What kind of conversations surfaced during the process? Did you learn anything new about the people you approached; did they feel more familiar afterwards? Did anyone tell you a story of how they used to draw the exact same way when they were 4 years old?

This is art appreciation: to be aware of how you are and how you do things, and to bring that awareness into knowing how others are and how they do things. It is to notice both the sameness and the differentness, and to exist peacefully in the bridges between. This is also empathy.

This year, the first Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) find empathy as its running theme. “I think it says something about the world right now that empathy is an idea that artists feel there’s an urgency to explore,” said Wendy Martin, the Artistic Director of PIAF. One of the projects featured at this Festival is Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes: where you are invited to walk a mile while listening to someone’s life story.

Art can cultivate empathy because it bridges differentness with artistic expression as a leveller. Yet: it goes beyond that, too. To create is generally to bring into this world an extension of oneself, and it is as independent as it is relational. In cultivating empathy through art, we can begin to transform society to see with new eyes and an open mind, and live with a bigger heart.

Art and play for resilience

“I wasn’t doing very well, but my teacher helped me and now it’s better. It really helps when you have friends who can help you out.”

This is what one of the 3-year-olds told me last week in the wake of a bit of clay trouble: the bowl she was making fell apart. She asked for help, and then was on her way to remaking her bowl. The very candid reflection that came immediately after is a gem of the classroom.

“It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.” (Ginsburg, K., 2007)

In classrooms as described above, art and play creates a safe space for children to explore their own limitations and strengths, and discover their innate capacity for resilience. The experience remains relevant through all walks of life, and we approach the arts in our programs as experiences of play, regardless of age.

In fact, our experience so far of working with and serving different groups of people tells us that the importance of the arts and play is ever more important as we get older. We have seen the arts open doors for people to rediscover resilience, creativity, purpose, perspective — to name but a few.

In this article, Dr. Peter Gray starkly describes the current landscape of emotional growth and how it is affecting learning institutions and the development of adults today. Here is a little bit of insight into how we are working to change it: three questions for reflection for bumps in the road. For all ages.

– What happened?
– What do you feel about what happened?
– What do you think you could do next?

Are you and/or have you been a teacher, student, parent? What are your experiences of art? Of resilience in schools and at home? We would love to hear from you and keep the conversation going. Comment here, or talk to us through Facebook.

This month of February in the Philippines is National Arts Month and we’re going to be talking about the arts for wellbeing. We look forward to sharing more with you in the coming weeks.




Kenneth R. Ginsburg, “The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds,” American Academy of Paediatrics, 119:1. 2007.

Gratitude: see with new eyes

It’s the third week into the new year. Perhaps you are utterly inspired, and on track with resolutions; perhaps to you it is just another day and week in a long line of days and weeks. Whatever your disposition toward the New Year, a good leveller we can never have too much of is gratitude.

The VIA Institute on Character, a non-profit organization devoted to advancing research in the science and practice of character, lists Gratitude as a strength of Transcendence: the ability to forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.

To us, this is a thoughtful creative process as we constantly exercise our capacity to imagine, recreate, and see with new eyes.

Paolo Knill, one of the founders of the philosophy of the Expressive Arts, describes this well:

The creative act expands ones’ range of play in times of crisis and reminds the individual/group of his/her/their inherent capacity to shape the world.

As a strength, gratitude as a connection to life is uniquely powerful because it has the capacity to give perspective in difficult situations, and sustain the truly good and joyful moments we encounter in our lives. Bringing it back to the New Year: gratitude can keep us in balance between that overwhelming burst of inspiration, and the idleness of non-expectation caused by fear, resistance, and past experiences. It can open hidden doors for fresh perspective, and keep us grounded in the truth of yourself. Whether we’re struggling or soaring, you can be assured that with gratitude, you’ll keep yourself headed in the right direction.

Whether you have that list to help you live a better year, or you are taking it one day at a time to make better choices, to start with gratitude is a sure step forward. Below are some suggestions for starting your own Gratitude Journal.

Meaning in reason
Go through this pair of questions each day, repeating the cycle for as long as you would like:

  • What are you grateful for today?
  • Why are you grateful for it?

Notice the details
List down one person, one object, and one moment in your day that you are grateful for.

Appreciating the hard things

When faced with a bad day, reflect on it by listing/writing down what lessons you learned from it. Our trials are one of our greatest teachers.

  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn / are you learning to do because of the bad experience?
  • Can you find a way to appreciate the experience? (This does not need to happen right now. If you can’t, imagine how it might in the future. This helps just as much, and is the first step in the right direction.)

We’d love to hear from you: what do you think? How do you keep gratitude growing in your life?