How to Start a Meditative Painting Practice
Use breathwork and color therapy to find your center in your meditative painting practice.
THOUGHT: that mysterious electronic charge in the synapses in our brain. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by the existential angst of being human. At other times, awe and wonder at the beauty of life on earth comes to us just as powerfully. Thought is what causes our tumbles and stumbles through what we perceive as reality.
Humans use prayer, meditation, ritual, ceremony, art, force, denial, violence, wishes, and pure passion to attempt to alter or create reality. Whether we are attempting to heal an emotional wound, change a belief, or even influence the future of society, we must move the thought to the material plane to manifest a solution.
Let’s say you are faced with a difficult decision, and the old standby of making a list of pros and cons isn’t working for you. That’s a left-brain logic tool, and a good one, but you feel you need more information from your whole self to make the right decision or, depending on your belief system, help from your Higher Self, God, or Spirit. Try plugging into your right brain, which is your communication line to intuition, by using shamanic journey (the imaginary) and art (the material).
The best way to learn shamanic journeying is with a group, one led by both an experienced practitioner and a drummer who set up the conditions of the journey.
“The unconscious becomes conscious through a shamanic journey and the inner world becomes the outer world through painting.”
With the help of the drum’s sonic driving, the journeyer enters mythic worlds. “The shamanic drumming technique induces a trance-like state in which a person can ask for information,” says Catherine Steinberg, a Connecticut psychotherapist who’s been in practice for forty years. She incorporates shamanic methods into her counseling. “The drumbeat, akin to the mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb, enables one to relax and connect to the heart’s wisdom.”
Contacts and conversations with spirit or animal guides one meets along the journey often result in gifts of insight being given to the journeyer. The experience is much like our childhood adventures of conjuring up imaginary best friends and having a conversation with them. The famous Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung took this kind of child’s play and shamanic practice seriously in his use of Active Imagination. Here you feel you’ve entered another plane of reality, one that you are familiar with from childhood, in searching for your answer.
If you are a lone journeyer unable to find a group or limited by pandemic restrictions, the world of the Internet is vast. Start by exploring YouTube videos. There are numerous teachings and shamanic drumming sessions from which to choose. You will miss the chance to deepen your trance state by linking into the brainwave states of real human companions, the camaraderie of sharing your journey, and the personal direction of a teacher. However, don’t let that stop you from engaging your creativity and your desire to grow and affect change in the world.
In a shamanic art practice, participants document their experience after the journey, which can last from about twenty minutes to an hour. Often, this documentation is done in a sketch or painting rather than words. The language of art resides in the right hemisphere of the brain, as does the intuitive journey just undertaken.
Depending on the teacher, you may record your journey for about fifteen minutes on a sheet of paper, say with a basket of crayons while lying on a blanket on the floor, or you may be encouraged to work intensely for weeks on your images in your own space. Steinberg’s day-long workshops employ several journeys, with plenty of time to paint between. Not every practitioner has the same method and goal, but the shamanic journey remains the basis of the work.
The process of creating shamanic art may look like art therapy or automatic drawing on the surface, but the difference is that it’s based on the shamanic paradigm and the technique of the shamanic journey. The intention is to receive further insight into that journey and into the solution to a problem, to find a specific path toward healing, to achieve a goal, or to answer a question through art, not to create a decorative object.
Have your materials close at hand so you can stay in touch with the trance state. Allow your intuitive self to choose the colors, images, rhythms, and directions of your brush or pen strokes. Don’t focus on technique. Remember that all of us, as children, reveled in mark making. Have fun. Let the message reveal itself.
Steinberg reiterates that what comes out on the canvas is not judged as fine art but rather is information. “I think of shamanic painting as a healing modality that empowers a person to discover information pertinent to them, at a particular point in time, and express it in visual form through colors and shapes on canvas.”
She says her clients often tell her that, after holding images in their visual field for days or weeks after they’re produced, “They feel a real internal shift and notice changes in their lives as they digest and integrate these images. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so is the shamanic painting process often worth many psychotherapy sessions.”
Denise Bevza, a lawyer and student of Steinberg’s, explained what shamanic painting means to her and how she uses it in her life. She keeps the paintings, many in progress, in her bedroom. They give her a last-thing-at-night, first-thing-in-the-morning reminder that there is a world beyond the minutia and density of the everyday. Her particular intuitive style of ethereal, semitransparent layers of paint illustrates her idea of “expanding the box” and the spaciousness of reality. Bevza describes letting go of her will, the answer forming under her brush, like a plant unfurling from a seed.
Shamanic painting lends itself to people who are visually oriented, but there are ways to adapt. Not all people experience visuals when they journey. This doesn’t mean they’ve failed at journeying—it’s just that other senses are stronger.
Your journey may be audial. If you’re a musician, choose music to remind you of your journey. What sounds take you back to that world to deepen your understanding of its message? Your own composition is best. Play in concert with the birds, the wind, your dog. Play with abandon.
Are you a kinetic learner? Dance your journey. A traditional shamanic exercise called Dancing Your Animal is a way of strengthening the bond between you and your spirit guide. The practice of embodying the guide is thought to have led to the more formal tribal dances we see today, such as the Deer, Bear, and Eagle dances. You can use dance to give life to your journey, bringing it from the mind into the physical realm.
Bring your soul-mind, captured in the symbols of a shamanic journey, to a canvas, a sheet of paper, a melody, or a movement and you will be better able to integrate its messages into your life.
This article focuses on one particular way to use the shamanic journey. For more information on how to journey, Winter recommends the publications, videos, or personal instructions of teachers who have trained with the Foundation of Shamanic Studies.
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