On feeling uninspired, and 3 ways to think with your senses

Some of you may have been directed here from our April 2018 newsletter. There was an error in the newsletter’s linking, so if you are looking for Art and Play for Resilience, click here.

Some of you may already know how important it is to look inward, read into you, and discover something new about your story. This is, however, easier said than done.  According to Art Therapist and and Professor Shaun McNiff, the distress of feeling ‘stuck’ partly comes from having experienced satisfaction in “feelings of potential expression”. In other words, the height of inspiration is what can make the silence of non-expression most demotivating.

Though in context McNiff was speaking about artists and creative block, this feeling is universal and not at all restricted to artists.  Ringing true beside the fact that creativity is innate in everyone, you don’t have to be an artist to feel uninspired, longing for a ‘creative streak’, or wanting to feel like you’re ‘on a roll’.  Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow: a “deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.” Flow is the sense of control, clarity, peace, and ease. Who wouldn’t make that the benchmark for their life’s moments?

This feeling comes and goes, and going through an uninspired period is difficult, no matter how you use creativity in daily life: as an artist, for leading a team, for solving day-to-day problems.

The silence and stillness of this period can be deafening, but McNiff invites us to try a kinder and more accepting disposition toward being stuck:

The most reliable way to deal with stuck or inactive conditions is to accept them, understanding they are universal features of the creative process and not something belonging to me alone. Acceptance of what is happening in the moment sets the stage for creative expression to regenerate itself.

Most days, we probably have to learn and re-learn how to accept our limitations and the rhythm of flow, but we have to seek out the openness. Acceptance is an undetected strength that is often overpowered by the noise of disappointment, busyness, and simply trying too hard. It is our pursuit of acceptance that leads us to the strength of openness to our reality. It doesn’t matter how small the moments may be – there is always the deep well of possibility, and the next a-ha moment.

Here are a few things to help anyone through the process of being in-between flows of expression, and of accepting the fullness of the present moment even when it feels dead quiet.  Remember to approach these activities with appreciation of process; not at all outcome.

Learn for the first time.

British Artist Leon Kossoff considers his entire career in art as “learning how to draw“. Perhaps, the more knowledgeable you are at something, the more important this is to practise. If you’re stuck, it may mean you need to warm up to a small degree of unlearning what you already know, to reach new and deeper understanding. This isn’t so much about the senses yet, but more a way of being, and a humbling and inspiring way to start the day. Kossoff would wake up in the morning and say, today I might learn how to draw.

Awaken the senses.

“In the creative process we do not just make things: we make ourselves,” McNiff says.  Have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’ve put all that I am into that”?  When we are creative, we are what we do. A simple way to acknowledge this connection is to engage yourself artfully. Artfully, because the explicitly creative act of expression is what opens up your mind and allows your whole body to feel. Awaken the senses, because your senses connect your thinking mind to your experiential, physical self that navigates your physical environment.

For the eyes: draw by looking
I often struggle with drawing because of the tendency to judge and analyze how well I can copy what I’m seeing. While there is value and often jaw-dropping skill in being able to draw accurately to life, there’s also value in the fluidity of instantaneously making marks according to what you see. This helps tone down the analytical mind that can sometimes hinder creative expression. So: put pencil to paper and draw something right in front of you, without taking your eyes off what you’re drawing. Let your seeing mind alone inform your drawing hand.

For the ears: draw what you hear
Blindfold yourself (or close your eyes) and draw what your ears hear. This exercises spatial awareness and can bring in a new way of taking in your surroundings. Here, your hearing mind informs your drawing hand and you might find you’ll still know where things are, how big they are or whether they are fragile or robust. To maximise this little experience, go somewhere outside where there are natural sounds, or to a bustling place.

For the hand: draw what you touch
Have a friend choose objects with differing textures and place them in opaque bags. Chances are, you’re going to know what’s inside – you don’t have to see a book to know you’re holding one. However, in this exercise, challenge yourself to draw what it feels like, not what you know it is. With your non-dominant hand in the bag, feel your way through drawing whatever you can’t see. How do you draw or make marks that will show something is rough or smooth? When I tried this for the first time, I spent fifteen minutes feeling my way through drawing a leaf.

Write a river.

Write whatever comes to mind. Set a timer of around 10 minutes, catch the first thought and go from there. This will exercise your sense of presence and the need to keep writing will eventually ask your brain to pull out all the stops and start asking other parts of yourself what stories they can tell. What did your hands touch? What are you hearing? How does it feel to sit on a chair? Some people prefer doing this with pen and paper, and that’s always an enriched tactile experience. However, you may also choose to type – there are others who prefer typing because to type is to be quicker in recording fleeting thoughts. 10 minutes not enough? Add another 10!

Whatever you decide to do, it’s helpful to reflect on it afterward. Does it tell you something about your feeling of being stuck? Does it tell you what you’re inspired by at the moment?  We’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried these activities, or what you did if you’ve come up with your own.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.

McNiff, Shaun. Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Creative Expression. Boston: Shambhala, 2015. Print.

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.