The transpersonal approach takes an all-encompassing look at you, and encourages you to look within and source your own inner wisdom, honouring all parts of yourself and allowing you to integrate what you discover along the way so that you can enhance your life
Anxiety, depression, anger, lack of direction and low self-esteem; these are just some of the many issues facing people in today’s fast-paced and results-driven world. As more individuals turn to professionals for help and for answers, many are being drawn to transpersonal therapies, like art therapy and transpersonal counselling, because of their creative and holistic approach to healing.
A few years ago while conducting art therapy at a men’s refuge, I found myself in a one on one session with a man who had been diagnosed with a mental illness and, after a series of setback in his life, had become homeless and jobless. On the surface, he seemed to really want to turn his life around, but on a deeper level I could sense that something was missing. Twenty minutes into the session, he declared he’d be much more comfortable outside. The room we had been assigned was pretty cold and clinical and fortunately there was an adjoining courtyard which was free at the time. So we took our chairs and art material outdoors and resumed the session under a tree. It was there under the tree that the real breakthrough began to happen. He started to open up and admit that he had lost his way, or as he had put it, ‘lost his shine’. We explored what that meant for him and he articulated the things in his life that connected him to his soul and gave him a sense of joy and purpose – things like his deep and cultural connection to nature. For him it was the symbol of the tree and the connection with that tree that helped him to communicate his needs and explore his deep heart desire. As I sat holding the space, I could feel his whole energy shift as though he was lighting up from the inside. As I thought this, he turned to me and said, “This is what I meant about my shine”.
What occurred in that session illustrates what transpersonal healing is about; an energetic connection between people and an honouring of space that allows for self-exploration and discovery to occur at a deeper soul level. There had been no agenda on my part to make this man better or solve his problems, nor could I have anticipated where the session would go and that we would end up sitting under a tree – a symbol that would eventually provide the catalyst for his own self-exploration and discovery. What I did know and trust was that our hour and a half together would unfold in exactly the way it should and provide him with exactly what he needed in that moment in his life.
The client-centred approach to transpersonal healing respects that you are an individual with unique life experiences and makes no assumptions and no attempts to fix, cure or change you. Based on the ancient shamanic model, a transpersonal therapist will travel into your world and at your pace, appreciating that you are more than your mind and body. ‘Transpersonal’ means to go beyond or transcend the personal or persona, and transpersonal therapies therefore seek to address the full and complex needs of the person – the physical, emotional and the spiritual. By exploring the whole person, you get a better sense of the whole story.
Combining modern psychology with ancient traditions, transpersonal therapists use a range of tools to help you navigate your inner world – things like art and symbol, story and myth, dreams, ritual, energetics and altered states. These tools help to cut through your ego in order to tap into that deeper part of self where the answers often lie. Just as my client had explored the symbol of the tree and what that had meant for him, a transpersonal therapist can help you to explore the symbolic language of your soul and make meaning of the symbols that lie beneath your ego and in your unconscious.
For transpersonal art and sandplay therapist, Kellie Miles, the use of symbol is an integral part of her work. Kellie believes that symbol can be incredibly revealing and effective as it our natural inherited language. “We might be born into a particular culture and we learn a certain language which becomes part of our personality and identity, but at a deeper level our personality is symbolic and it makes sense that we can access that part of ourselves through images and symbols”, she says. Kellie adds that, because your ego wants to control you and keep you safe, it will often try to hide things from you that it doesn’t want you see. “However the ego doesn’t recognise the symbolic language and so it can’t interfere in the processes.” Kellie claims that she and her clients are getting results quite quickly because they are able to bypass the ego’s defence system.
Kellie’s clients range in backgrounds and ages, with her youngest just four years old and her oldest in his mid-seventies. “The non-verbal modalities are extremely powerful with children who often don’t have the language and can’t express what is happening in their lives”, she says, adding that adolescents meantime will often open up once they are given a safe outlet in which to express themselves.
According to Kellie, some of the common themes facing people who come to see her are stress, anxiety, lack of direction and depression. “I have one client who has a very high corporate job and his boss actually recommended he come to see me because of his anger. We are now working through this and other issues using a range of creative techniques and he’s doing really well”, she says. She adds, “People get to their 30s and 40s and realise they’re not where they want to be and this can lead to all sorts of issues including depression.” Kellie uses creative healing techniques to help her clients explore what may be missing from their lives and what may be not working, and she helps them to find their own answers – answers that are in line with their true selves.
By using art and symbol, a transpersonal therapist will help you uncover the different masks you wear in life or the roles you play and how they may help or hinder you from leading an authentic life.By drawing your feelings, your situation or even your dreams, you can begin to unpack and unlock the meanings and messages that your unconscious mind has for you. By mapping your own life story with processes like the hero/heroine’s journey, you can start to narrate the direction in which you would like your life to go. Darkness and challenges, meantime, are seen as potential gifts and sometimes a necessary part of your life journey. The key is that you can find your way back with new tools for the future.
Transpersonal therapist Stephen Robinson, who has been counselling people for 30 years, has come to believe that the therapist is much like a soul companion, helping to guide the person as they discover their own healing resources. “It can be difficult because it is honest soul searching work”, he says. “It challenges you to go beyond ego control (i.e. the ego’s love of the body, education and possessions, etc.) and discover the deep and mysterious world where you can discover your true self, your passion and what gives you meaning.”
As Stephen has repeatedly discovered, people will often find their own answers and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. This was the case for one client who had come to see him suffering depression after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. “She was in her mid 60s and very intelligent”, Stephen recalls, “and she was also very skeptical about the transpersonal nature of the work,” he says. “When I asked her if she would like to do a drawing, she said ‘no’, but eventually she picked up an HB pencil and started scribbling. When she had finished, I asked if I could hold the drawing. As I did, I turned the drawing upside down and the woman gasped and said that her drawing was the exact shape of her tumour.” Stephen then used a focusing technique involving meditation, in which the woman heard a voice which told her to ‘talk to the tumour’. She was too frightened at the time to do this. So Stephen left the invitation open and two weeks later the woman called him declaring she was ready to begin the dialogue. Stephen says that, from there, she was able to access a time in her past that held a lot of pain and resentment, and this set about a process of forgiveness and letting go. As he explains, “this wasn’t going to be a miraculous experience, but she was able to face her future with a new sense of calm and forgiveness”.
Stephen stresses that by working with ‘embodiment’, people become aware of the link between what’s happening in their bodies and what they are experiencing in their lives. When dealing with dreams for example, he will ask, “What are the feelings of your dream and what was your energy like for the rest of the day?” This kind of probing helps to create connections between the dreams and body experience and ultimately helps people to sense into their inner world.
The very sensory nature of transpersonal work and the use of creative expression brings awareness into the body, allowing you to listen to the inherent wisdom your body has for you as well as experience the calm, clarity and insight that comes with being in the now. The fact is you may know what to do on an intellectual level but, until you embody it, then little can change. Friends and family can tell you what they think you should do. You can even pay an expert to advise you, but as Stephen reiterates, “you are the one who has to do your homework; no one else can do it for you”.
It’s not always about finding answers to your problems or making changes to your life. As art therapist Sherree Maniks has found in working with children with autism, it can be about giving people the space to safely and freely express themselves. “These children are very much in the present moment,” Sherree explains. “For example, one four year old girl, who was very quiet, spent the majority of one of her first 40-minute session just looking at a sponge. I wanted to allow her to do that, to honour her space and to let her know that that was ok because I could see that she was getting something out of it”, she says. “The next time she came to the session, her dad told me that as soon as the doors opened to the therapy room, her face lit up and she was really keen to come in.”
Sherree recalls another magical moment when a boy was doing a mirror process with paint. “I was helping him to open up the entire painting to see what he had created”, she says. “When we saw the finished piece, he looked me in the eye and we both knew this piece was so beautiful. I could feel his gratitude and I could sense he was feeling pride for having created this amazing work of art.”
It doesn’t matter who the people are and how old for that matter, art and symbol seem to have a way of paving a direct route to the soul. While working with elderly residents at an aged care facility, Sherree witnessed people connecting into soulful moments through their art. In fact, after just one week of working with a group of senior women, the managers at the facility saw such a dramatic improvement in the overall wellbeing of the participants that they funded a two-year art therapy program. She says that when she first started there, she would hear comments like, “I’m no good at art” or “My sister was always the arty one”. But by the end, she would see the joy in many of their faces after they produced a beautiful water colour painting or their first drawing in years. As Sherree knows, it’s not about how good your art is, it’s about where your art can take you. She fondly remembers a 90-year-old woman with mid-range dementia who declared after her very first art therapy session, “This feeds my soul”.
The fact is transpersonal healing is about soul work, and, as we have seen, it’s not solely reserved for those on a spiritual path. People of all ages and from all walks of life are realising the many benefits of these creative healing modalities. Perhaps it is because the work allows you to go gently, safely and in your own time and because it appreciates that you are a unique being with your own unique experience and needs. In a society fixated on the external – appearance, possessions and performance – the transpersonal approach takes an all-encompassing look at you, and encourages you to look within and source your own inner wisdom. Importantly, it honours all parts of yourself, allowing you to integrate what you discover along the way so that you can enhance your life: whether it’s finding calm, feeding your soul or even rediscovering your ‘shine’.
Silvana is a writer and art therapist in Sydney. As a former journalist and communications specialist, Silvana moved into the healing sector after graduating from the College of Complementary Medicine. She now combines her two passions, writing and helping others to reach their potential.
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