THE ART OF TENDERNESS: EMBODIED WISDOM IN ECOLOGICAL ART THERAPY
BSc.Soc.Sci. (Joint hons. Phil. & Psych.), Dip. A.T., registered art therapist (UK), a long-term member of the Findhorn Foundation Community, currently in private practice
This article is based on the paper presented by Beverley A’Court at the first international web-based conference, “Ecological/Earth-Based Arts Therapies: International and Multi-Cultural Perspectives" (2020). It reveals the quality of tenderness expressed towards all life forms, exercised not only in relationships between people, but also in their relations with the more-than-human world. Many therapists are taking their sessions outdoors, however it is important to remember that 'Nature' is not just a backdrop or resource 'supermarket', but a dynamic, living field of diverse intelligences and subjects. The voice of every living being has a place in this 'orchestra', contributes to the whole 'symphony' and must be attended to for psycho-ecological well-being and survival. Ecological art therapy can be used is a gentle and powerful path back to rediscovering this precious quality within individual daily lives and as a contribution to restoring collective well-being.
Keywords: art therapy, attention, mindfulness, poetry, silence, tenderness,
Mindfulness meditation has been integrated into much art- and eco-therapy but has been secularised, removed from its original context within Buddhism and contemplative religious traditions, where devotion and compassion, and the moral behaviour that comes from empathy, are important aspects of awareness and essential support for the integrated development of the person. This paper grew partly out of my explorations of this – the role of this, and other tender feelings, in our awareness and well-being, and other reflections on the qualities of therapeutic attention.
Indigenous traditions often prioritise 'deep democracy' , where the voice of every life form in nature has a place and inherent value by virtue of its presence and contribution to the whole, and must be respected and attended to for well-being and survival. This holism, this web of inter-being and interdependence, pervades ancient myths, spiritual traditions and folklore worldwide and is a feature of quantum science.
Crucially, the knowledge of this lives within us, biologically, along with deeply embodied, intuitive knowledge and artistic skills inherited from our genetic, ecological and cultural ancestry. In this era of dissolving, reconfiguring boundaries, ecological therapies are becoming multi- and inter-disciplinary: their theories, practices and philosophies emerging from diverse knowledge streams with deep currents. Ecological art therapy is a fluid, ever-evolving ecosystem amongst many, grounded in current research and continually guided by the spontaneous co-creativity that arises with clients during therapy.
In this paper I focus on the quality of our attention and suggest how we might use more holistic language modes to reflect on our art therapy practice.
Attention and silence
In the English language the expressions to 'pay attention to', 'attend to', 'tend', and show 'tenderness' carry related connotations:
- to turn towards
- to give focused but sensitive awareness
- to care for, administer healing gently, kindly
- to wait, to be patient.
All of this takes time. Neurologically, physiologically, psychologically. Hence the emphasis on slowing down that so many mindful therapeutic approaches include. By slowing our habitual pace, we are less likely to drift into automatic pilot mode where our movement and expression, in art and speech, becomes disconnected from our core felt sense and authenticity.
When art therapists and their clients share in the 'looking together' phase of a session; silently witnessing the client's creation, letting it look back and be received with all its encoded dynamics and raw feeling, fresh from the wild unconscious, a vital, integrative process is occurring. This patient attention alone is often experienced intensely, as kindness and tenderness to the beleaguered self.
In many ancient stories patient, vigilant silence has to be maintained and endured under cruel circumstances, but allows a deeper, fuller truth to unfold over time, to become visible and be spoken, and for the characters to develop integrity, discernment and the maturity to take up their authentic, destined identity, role and status in society.
Silence has neurological significance. When we resist overlaying the raw art work - this unformed, newly-forming, or more-than-verbal visual 'concept' - with our familiar language matrix, we allow time for new connections (from dream, memory, imagination, somatic experience and nature) to be made, new neuronal pathways and concepts to form. By including silence as an important part of the therapeutic process, we relieve the client of the pressure to know, to verbalise their recent art experience in familiar concepts and coherent narratives. By regulating our own somatic state, therapists model the possibility of remaining stable and curious in the presence of the unknown, and, in the case of children, we avoid stimulating stereotypical, therapist-pleasing responses. We also allow space for other forms of language; for spontaneous movement in response to the art, for poetic utterances, for song.
Photo 1: Peterhof park in Winter. Photo by Beverley A'Court
Physiologically, when such a field of patient attentiveness and compassionate acceptance is present, trauma symptoms subside, acute sense perception is restored and frontal cortex thinking re-engages to provide clarity.
The unskillful use of silence can provoke terror, paranoia or hostility in a traumatised adult or child, which must be carefully worked with, but shared silence in art therapy more often becomes a ritualised time of co-looking and being with the art's embodied feeling in an 'affectionate silence' as Jack Kornfield  describes it.
Photo 2: The artist at his farmhouse. Photo by Beverley A'Court
In this, the therapist also takes a risk; of having feelings evoked by the art work without the veil of verbal definition and interpretation and the reassuring sense of fulfilling their professional role by 'doing' enough. Silence invites us to give up some control to allow a space for nature to speak – from within the client-artist, from the therapy process itself and the surrounding living field.
Poetry as a language mode in art therapy discourse
Poets, astronomers and naturalists often say that silence contains everything, that the world is held in a great silence, the oceanic darkness of myth, the shimmering formlessness from which all forms emerge. We often experience silence spatially; silence between friends or strangers, therapist and client, may feel open, pregnant with potential, thinking freed to travel far, forming distant connections
The language mode that most embodies this spacious, fertile, connected silence, is poetry. In good poetry the words seem to be born out of silence as we read them, breathing their meanings into being. I sometimes encourage supervisees to remember to take their inner poet into their therapy sessions and to use poetry in their reflections on the therapy, to capture, in a more holistic, embodied way the quality of pivotal moments and processes, including their own role and counter-transference experiences.
Poetry activates our capacity to experience the details of the immediate moment through the lens of our cultural and ecological inheritance, via the body's rhythmic music of breath, heart-beat, gesture and speech. It is a holistic language that embodies the essence and power of a single moment while revealing its universality.
Photo 4: Tatoo Artist, Norway. Photo by Beverley A'Court
I'd like to illustrate this with some images (Photos 1,2,3,4). For me, these images illumine, simultaneously,
- the person in their vulnerable being-with-themselves and
- the emotional tone and associations of the environmental scene implied with tenderness and attention.
We look in, as an unexpected guest, and are enticed to notice the detailed texture of the moment, to linger in suspension, in the oscillation between the intensely private and the universal, the hinted-at past and suggested future. The effect is an empathic intimacy; poised, imaginative, open to new occurrences, similar to many moments in therapy.
The next image was one of over 100 taken during a three-hour session in which the client wanted to make a record of her body's life - to celebrate all it had given her and its beauty, to mourn her many losses and afflictions, and prepare for surgery that would drastically alter her body. With her chosen props, fabrics and flowers, she moved though many poses and expressions, through tears and laughter, both directing my camera and permitting me to 'capture' spontaneous moments in our mutually playful interactions.
Photo 4: Phototherapy session. Signature pearl. Photo Beverley A'Court
This photo (Photo 4), the least explicitly body-focused, and out of focus, was one both she and I felt to be a 'signature' image, for her. It is quiet, understated sensuality had resonances with Vermeer's painting of 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring', with her biography and a more universal story, a hovering ambiguity evoking tender feelings.
The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, 'The mind is wider than the sky' and when we are in spacious silence, we are able to hold these perspectives, and more, together in awareness. When client-artists experience this, such moments are illumined with a kind of intimacy and universality for which poetry is a refined language. In such moments of simultaneous transcendence and earthed-ness, vivid connections, metaphors and insights may rise in the client's consciousness with accompanying somatic shifts.
Attending to invisible worlds
Existentially, silence is often equated with absence, nothingness, isolation and potential danger, but learning to find space, peace and existential safety in silence is a strengthening process with a long history within literary, monastic and yogic spiritual traditions. The absence of human sound is often a feature of outdoor art therapy and many uncultivated places have, superficially, an initial silence. However, nature is no inert, passive stage-set for our therapy, but a dynamic, sentient field of diverse intelligences - a 'communion of subjects' . Beings speak back to us in diverse languages, they participate in and divert our intended activities, as so many myths and indigenous shamanic teachings describe.
When we take people out of their institutions or familiar townscapes, initially they say things like, 'there's nothing here'. 'Just grass, just trees, just empty space', not seeing, sensing or imagining the presence of multitudes of inhabitants. This occurs in relation to larger-scale, political perceptions too. Proposed sites for dams, mines, mega-quarries and forms of industrial 'development' (a word presuming the outcome to be enrichment and improvement on what is already there) are often in locations chosen because 'there is nothing there', which is rarely the inhabitants' view of their rich, diversely populated ecology.
With somatic preparation and relaxation, when a client's attention is invited to wander freely, to follow an inner impulse or to wait to be attracted or 'called', the voices and conversations of many beings become vividly perceptible.
In ecological art therapy we often witness at close hand, the non-dualism of the world: how the client's condition or situation appears in events occurring in the inter-relational space, in dynamic relationship with the surrounding ecology. We witness resonances; as when trees pour leaf-speech and shower acorns, pine cones, berries or leaves onto a single person in a group for whom this has meaning or answers an inner question. Animals appear and behave like mirrors, enacting 'private' personal habits, dramas or potential unperceived perspectives before the client's eyes.
Process oriented psychology developed by Arnold and Amy Mindell provides a conceptual framework and vocabulary for therapists refining our skills in how to pay attention, not just to the primary channel of expression and communication the client is using, but also to subtler, non-congruent signals in other 'channels', of which the client may be unaware and which seem to tell a different, often contradicting story to the one being consciously expressed. Working outdoors, nature's non-human beings also often become the channels of expressing some truth to a client: inner realities appear on the outside in the 'world channel'.
Here is a vignette from my own practice:
A successful business man, relaxed on the ground beside his large gestural drawing, silent and smiling. He remarked how pleasurable it was to lie spread-eagled in the sun doing nothing and how he longed to let go of everything! Then burst out, 'But if I let go, nothing would get done!' Meanwhile, a swarm of bees had arrived, busily gathering nectar among the flowers beside him. More bees came and I gently drew his attention to them. He laughed, saying he understood that his business would not suddenly stop, that other people - many other beings and forces - were working behind the scenes and would keep things going if he took the rest he longed for.
Such attunement to the field of living beings is taught in many indigenous cultures. In contrast, a dominant, egoic self 's defensive-aggressive attitude often manifests in bodily tension, numbness and hardening, constricting empathy and sensitivity, a condition which McIntosh described as our ‘psychopathology of insensibility’ .
Rediscovering the body as first ground
The following might be regarded as premises of a holistic ecological art therapy which I practice and have developed over the years:
- Including the body in the art-making process and art therapy leads to including the ‘environment,’ because we are spatial beings and all our activity is inevitably in relationship to our life-space and those beings who share in it.
- Our body is our closest 'wilderness', our own territory of wild nature, most of whose vastly complex processes occur outside our conscious control, without our ‘executive direction’ 'thinking' them into happening or directing them.
- Bodies, as living systems, communicate at gross and subtle levels, locally and at distance, with the field of interdependent living systems. We radiate and transmit ourselves biochemically, electrically, and via empathy, as we also sense and empathise with others’ mind-body states, feelings, and motivations, via our mirror neurons and other physiological systems.
‘Health’ globally increasingly means multifaceted ‘well-being,’ a state of body-mind-world in which individual and collective vitality and opportunity is maximized in concordance with other living systems. In therapy this is typically manifested as awareness, ‘presence,’ the ability to remain a fully embodied, connected a compassionate, and attentive witness to self and others, amidst disturbance and distress. Images from many cultural traditions of the fulfilled, happy, 'enlightened,' or holy person often portray them within a complex natural environment, a landscape or garden, where they appear in peaceful harmonious existence with all life forms there, which are also in harmony with one another. The entire field is integrated, harmonised. The blessed person blesses the land. The footsteps of the holy person bless the path.
A therapeutic journey of recovery often involves learning to feel one's own body, to develop somatic sense, as a step towards greater self-awareness and self-regulation. For this, Feldenkrais  said, we ‘need to create the conditions that enable us to feel ourselves’. Muscular effort, he said, creates a kind of intensity, a ‘noise’, that obscures our perception of subtle bodily changes, and can mask our sensitivity to somatic signals as to who we really are in body and mind. [7, p.9]
Activity not straining to achieve a preconceived pace or outcome - like free-form, gestural drawing - can relax our defences so that we can open to conscious awareness of the body’s natural functioning and tolerate 'entering our inner wilderness, the aliveness of our bodies.' . We may feel blissful, streaming sensations of life humming throughout our body, and what Dellinger  called the ‘sound of biological optimism in our bones’. We also become sensitive to vibrant life around us, receptive to delicate encounters and subtle communications.
Similar softening and awakening occur in art therapy during gestural movement and mark-making. Art-making is a natural medium for inquiry into lived experience, and art therapy can enable it to be a relatively effortless process of 'non-doing', as natural as breathing or meditation. Immersion in natural settings, acts on our physiology to vitalise physical functioning while awakening a sense of wonder, and a spontaneous, restorative sense of self-in-communion-with-all. Our nature-identity, our ecological self.
The 'Gestural Drawing’ technique I often introduce evolved as a tool to mindfully explore the body’s inherent skeletal geometry and the natural gestural marks that emerge from resting in deep attention to this. It has become one among many forms of mindful, somatic preparation for outdoor eco-art therapy work as it invites authenticity within the micro-environment, the potential space of the large paper. ‘Drawing’ is facilitated to flow from the body as a form of non-doing, without direction and what Feldenkrais calls the 'white noise' of effort, contrivance and striving, while being witnessed as we monitor our felt sense. I also use 'breathing drawing' and the slow Tai Chi of writing-drawing your name as ways to meet the emergent authentic self with kindness and recognise its tendency towards harmony and both an 'emptiness' (of fixed, rigid identity) in a Buddhist sense, and meaning.
During art therapy, clients spontaneously relate physically to, or find ways to embody their art works, extending them into the space and environment via postures, gestures, then into slow movement and occasionally vocalisation before, during and after art-making or by making marks from subtly emergent impulses and expressive gestures. With permission and support, clients can learn to notice the subtle emergence of somatic changes. They may make images of specific body parts, sensations, symptoms or whole-body experiences and follow urges to somatically express their imagery in facial expression, posture and movement, dance, song, and spontaneous prayer or poetry. Before, during and after art-making, clients can practice, here and now, embodying states unfamiliar or inaccessible to them in their everyday life and seek resonances in the natural world around them.
Relation field in outdoor ecological art therapy
Outdoor ecological art therapy enables spontaneous artistic expression to flow and be recognised as contributing to the whole situation, reflecting something of everything present. We can extend the idea of the relational field around artist, client, and art therapist to include place and its inhabitants as significant contributors to our inner development and life. I use various natural environments, wherever I am working. In Findhorn I encourage clients to use the studio, surrounding garden, woodland and beaches, and to notice and include objects and life forms encountered there in their installations and constructions.
Shamanic earth-based traditions, and many contemporary indigenous societies, have always viewed the health of one person as interdependent with the health of all the systems in which they participate: family, land, animals, ancestors, and god-spirits of place. They respect nature’s ability to perceive and involve us and to ‘talk back.’ Fairy tales abound with whispering forests, talking animals, and saints and heroes who can converse with more-than-human life forms. Nature and her creatures, including our industrial surroundings, erupt into our awareness via loud sounds or sudden shifts of light/dark and other presences, at moments in therapy instantly recognisable to clients as precisely timed, marking a subtle inner impulse and amplifying its significance, or, during ceremonies, for example, as support for healing rituals.
I have been guided for many years by the structures and coded information within traditional stories for how to access natural and ecological processes in art therapy and how to support clients in gaining personal resilience.
I would like to share a few principles and examples of open questions that I have found facilitate connection to ourselves-within-nature, always creatively adaptable to use with clients to meet their specific needs and enable self-care in outdoor therapy and inquiry with nature.
Firstly, I usually begin outdoor sessions with gentle, somatic self-regulation exercises, simple postures, gestures and breathing styles that physiologically assist in rebalancing potentially overwhelming emotion. I also recommend slowing down, to discover as Tara Brach says 'If you move half as fast you will notice twice as much' .
Nature knows you are here and who you are
Perhaps most importantly of all I suggest that wherever we go in nature, we are seen – the forest, trees, vegetation and creatures are all registering our presence at some level, so we might expect approaches or interactions. This, for very many people, has been the pivotal switch in perception that opens the door to new sense of self-as-world. As David Wagoner's poem says .
Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
The ceremonial 'Beauty Way' chants of the Dineh (Navajo) people of New Mexico and Arizona constantly refer to our being looked at and being seen by nature, and being known. In stories and earth-based traditions worldwide, nature speaks and people understand.
The following questions suggest just some ways to direct our sensitive attention, that can support further therapeutic processes: Who else is here with me in this place? Who is sharing this moment with me?
Aboriginal peoples of several continents have beautiful forms of language for this: They speak of the rock people, the water people, the sky people … acknowledging that their environment is animated with intelligences.
This question immediately guides attention towards present reality as a shared, co-created event. Thinking is gently led away from being primarily concerned with the singular, egoic perspective of the human person.
Who is speaking? invites us to enter a phase of deep, multi-modal listening.
Who here sees me?
Who comes to meet me?
When we enter wild places to walk, looking for materials and to make art, we consider the beings who are moved to approach us, perhaps with something to convey to us. With each question we go more deeply into openness and attending: waiting, watching and listening for subtle signals and responses in unexpected modalities, from unexpected sources.
Importantly, we have an opportunity to relax our cognitive habit of instantly evaluating every object of perception, including ourselves, as positive or negative, liked or disliked, good or bad. We experience perception freed from this bias. We cross lines that the materialist cultural paradigm uses to define valid reality, into a more inclusive sphere akin to our pre-Cartesian and pre-industrial ontology.
We can ask: What am I receiving right here and now? What is given to me?
Clients who feel isolated, excluded from life, unseen, lacking and undeserving, even non-existent, are invited to notice what is around them and provided for them. This can be an emotionally moving experience, a challenge to entrenched core beliefs of worthlessness while simultaneously offering resources for expression and art-making.
These simple questions have the power to highlight, as Dineh teacher Pat McCabe says, 'nature's sheer abundance and fearless generosity' which she suggests we too practice. Some of what is given may then be received and incorporated into an art work.
Finally, we can ask: What does this place need and ask of me? Of humans? which leads us to reciprocity:
As art therapists we do not simply use nature merely as a passive scenic backdrop, exploitable for inspiration and resources. We attend to the relationship, to what happens between a client and nature and to the client-art-nature-therapist field, just as many indigenous communities use ceremony and ritual to re-establish and harmonize the person-world relationship, often using the arts as the bridging medium.
Indigenous wisdom traditions emphasise being mindful of reciprocity: to remember that, whenever something is received, something has been given, and that balance in relationship must be continually restored. So, we enter spaces respectfully, acknowledging that they are already inhabited. We enter voicing our positive intention and ask permission to work there, for we may not know the history, who was born or is buried there, what griefs the land may hold, or what current conflicts we may disturb. We take notice of what and who is already there. We may make gifts to honour the place and those who have held custodianship of it, or in gratitude to a place that has provided us with natural art materials. When we take something, we practice leaving an offering; water, a raisin, a few oats, a 'thank you', a prayer... in return. In this small way we locate our therapy within a matrix of traditions that express and transmit ongoing care for the health of people and planet.
In summary, I hope I have made a case for art therapists to value and develop their capacities for silent, spacious attention and poetic expression in service to an earth-friendly ecological art therapy paradigm.
Additional background, practice examples, research evidence and references can be found in:
A'Court, B. (2016). A communion of subjects. In A. Kopytin & M. Rugh (Eds.), Green Studio: Nature and the arts in therapy (pp. 47-76). N.Y.: NOVA Science Puplishers.
A'Court, B. (2017). The art of mindful walking. In A. Kopytin & M. Rugh (Eds.), Environmental expressive therapies: Nature-Based theory and practice (pp. 123-160). New York: Routledge/Francis & Taylor.
A'Court, B. (2010). Speaking with listening: Art therapy and poetic practice. ATOL (Art therapy online) Vol.1.
A'Court, B. (1996). The great play of mind: Some reflections on spontaneous speech in art therapy. In Spoken English; ideas and developments in education // Journal of English-Speaking Board, 29(2), 15-20
- Berry, T. (1988). The new story in the dream of Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
- Bernstein, J. (2005). Living in the Borderlands. New York: Routledge.
- Brach, T. and Kornfield, J. (2020). Quotations from online meditation retreats firstname.lastname@example.org
- Dellinger, S. (2016). https://movelikeachild.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/feeling-the-sounds-of-biological-optimism-in-your-bones
- Feldenkrais, M. (1990). Awareness through movement: Health exercises for personal growth. New York & London: Harper & Row.
- Kornfield, J. (2020). No time like the present. Finding freedom, love, and joy right where you are. New York: Simon & Schuster Audio.
- Kurtz, R. (2008). A little history. The Hakomi Forum, 19, 20-21.
- McIntosh, A. (2020). Riders on the storm: The climate crisis and the survival of being. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd.
- Næss, A. (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. press.
- Wagoner, D. (1976). Collected poems 1956-76. Indiana University Press.
*For an introduction to The Beauty Way, Dineh (Navajo) philosophy, spirituality and earth-based teachings, https://tribalcollegejournal.org/beauty-walk-navajo-harmony/
Reference for citations:
A’Court, B. (2021). The art of tenderness: Embodied wisdon in ecological art therapy. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)