Creative Contemplation

Marlene van den Berg

Mental Health Occupational therapist and Gestalt Play therapist. B.OccTher (UP) M.Psych (NWU)

O wow! I love, love, love the new surge of interest into mindfulness and meditation. Having always been a bit of an alternative soul the message of connecting to your deepest sense of self is so very appealing. Sitting at dawn, watching the sunrise over a beautiful valley, lotus position on my comfy, sheepskin mat, following my breath and finding the essence of my being in a state of pure rest. O wow!

But there are some issues with this picture…I am way too tired from a week of work to get up at dawn, seriously, who does that? I have played hockey all my life, so my hamstrings does not allow a lotus position at all! I am tactile sensitive so the sheepskin will just scratch me and my thoughts are way too erratic to be following my breath…before I know it I have planned my week, tonight’s meal, my next meditation holiday and basically everything else but focus on my breath. O wow…..!

We all love the idea of being tuned in, mindful souls; but it is unfortunately true that our lives are chaotic and busy and does not always allow for the time or the routine to support a meditative practice. And it is really hard work. Phileena Heuertz, owner of Gravity, a contemplative centre in Omaha, USA, says that it is called a practice for a reason: you need to practice to get it right! We are often extremely self-critical when our attention wandered in a meditation session or when we skipped a day because we were lazy. This judgement is the last thing that contemplation is about, but it has become the very loop of our existence; telling us that we won’t ever get it right so we can just as well quit now…There goes our inner peace.

But then over time, through personal and professional observation, I became aware of something interesting. On retreat in the beautiful Ixopo, KwaZuluNatal, I learned the art of Japanese painting Sumi-e. Sumi-e consists of flowy lines and gentle strokes and therefore requires inner calm, steady hands and slow breath. In essence it requires meditation. And what was so amazing is that after a painting session I could go and sit in the lush bamboo garden and actually enter true contemplation. In the clinic that I work at it was interesting to see a repeat of this. People often struggled if we simply did a meditation exercise, but if we doodled as a meditation practice the sense of rest and restoration increased. I have since then adjusted my practice to incorporate creative activities. Walking through the beautiful Company Gardens of Cape Town, I will pick a flower and try to recreate it on my page, find my attention steady and my worries released. Drawing Mandala’s, crocheting, colouring in, decorating flowers, making a collage… all of these activities provided me the opportunity to shift through the rubble of my day and my thoughts and allowed me to find the treasure of me.

Creative engagement allows us to experience what psychologist, Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi, calls flow. Flow is when one is so actively engaged in a meaningful activity, that it feels like time stands still. The activity provides immediate feedback of satisfaction, engages all cognitive and physical faculties and leaves you refreshed and invigorated.Cskikzemihalyi says: “Flow experiences provide the flash of intense living against (the) dull background (of everyday living)” (Living Well: the psychology of everyday life, 1997). These experiences serve as moments of contemplative connection to our true selves and help us to, as Csikszenmihalyi explains, live well. 

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Engaging in creative activities provides us with the perfect space for physical, mental and emotional rest and restoration. It can be the soulful, spiritual meditative practice that either becomes or supports a deeper contemplative journey to deeper awareness of ourselves and our behaviour. Additionally, I found that in the companionships of being creative with others one finds a sense of reassurance of self and comfort of humanity. You do not even have to ‘unpack’ the aspects of being that you are pondering on, simply being in activity with others, reminds you that you are not on this journey alone. And you are actually practicing the most important practice of all: self-discipline through self-love. In attending your weekly creative class you are setting time out for yourself. You protect that time against social demands and work pressures and at times even your own critical voice, as this is your time for reconnection, healing flow and personal nurturing.

So here I am sitting, with some felt, some thread and some buttons and I am allowing my creative juices to flow. I am following my breath and the movement of my hands. I allow an idea to form and I simply make what surfaces…no rules, no judgements. My heart smiles and my soul contemplates the beauty of my existence. O wow!

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I want to encourage you to take a few felt tip pens and a blank page. To find a quiet, maybe beautiful corner of the world (pre-dawn or otherwise) and simply see what happens if you put pen to paper and attention to the process. And maybe if this works for you it’s time to live well. It’s time to make the time for your own creative contemplation practice.