FROM IKEBANA TO BOTANICAL ARRANGING: ARTISTIC, THERAPEUTIC, AND SPIRITUAL ALIGNMENT WITH NATURE*
*reprinted with permission from the journal CAET, Creative Arts in Education and Therapy - Eastern and Western Perspectives, (2019), 5(2): 96–105. http://caet.inspirees.com/caetojsjournals/index.php/caet/article/view/192
Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor at the Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Studies (St.-Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Tony Yu Zhou
PhD, a certified movement analyst, the founder of Inspirees Institute (China/The Netherlands), Guest Professor of Beijing Normal University (China)
This article reviews the history of the Japanese art of ikebana (flower arranging), contemporary ecological art therapy practice involving botanical arranging, the correlation between the two practices and their contribution to the physical and mental well-being of human beings. Different perspectives are offered by a Russian therapist specializing in ecological art therapy, and a Chinese creative arts therapist with a biomedical background. Ikebana and botanical arranging are considered forms of creative interaction with nature, providing multiple therapeutic effects and showing us how to realign ourselves with the laws of nature.
Keywords: art therapy, botanical arranging, ecotherapy, ikebana, Zen Buddhism
Ikebana: Reflection of Japanese and East Asian world view
Ikebana is one of the important traditional Japanese arts and has been in existence for 600 years. The word ikebana, which is composed of ikeru (生 け る, keep alive) and hana (花, flower), means “giving life to flowers.” It is also called kadō (華 道 or 花道), which means the way of the flowers. Ikebana originated in China, and is derived from the Buddhist tradition of offering beautiful objects to the dead, mainly in the temples. In the 7th century, Ono-no-Imoko, an official envoy, brought this Buddhist practice of flower arranging for temple altars from China to Japan. While ikebana continued to be part of the Buddhist tradition in China, it became a real art in Japan. It was an early sign of the integration of Buddhism into Japanese religious and social practices. Contrary to the art of flower arranging in the Western world, where the quantity of flowers seems to have a high priority, ikebana goes much further and not only reflects philosophical ideas but forms a cultural world view, centered around the idea of living in harmony with nature. In Japan, nature has always been the highest manifestation of truth and beauty. A poetic attitude to nature remains a strong feature of Japanese culture . In the art of ikebana, line, asymmetry, space, contrast, and harmony are highlighted (Fig.1). Nowadays, ikebana is considered a distinct artistic discipline in which nature and human creativity are brought together. Ikebana requires technical skills and is backed by solid theory. This form of art remains a vital medium for creative expression. Similar to the other practices in Japan like calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and Haiku, which have been valued in Zen Buddhism as means of self-cultivation, ikebana is seen as one method of body–mind training. Immersion in the physical practice of this art can lead to both psychological and spiritual emptiness (no-self), which is thought to be the source of skillful action and the basis for empathetic and ethical behavior. Self-transformation is the result of such diligent practice. The reduced role of the humble artist allows objects to reveal their inner essences . The health benefits of ikebana practice in enhancing the well-being of both patients and the general population are supported by some empirical and evidence-based research [5, 7, 15, 16]. In modern society where abundance, wealth, and egoism are often most highly valued, ikebana brings the notion of simplicity, modesty, and gentleness to the foreground and reminds us that the power of nature and human beings does not necessarily come from the Yang or the “condensing” quality (i.e., strong, direct, free, and quick). Interestingly, until the 18th century, ikebana practice was only for men. Such appreciation toward similar quality of arts and practice can also be found in the Four Arts (四藝, siyi): qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument. 琴), qi (the strategy game of Go, 棋), shu (Chinese calligraphy, 書), and hua (Chinese painting, 畫), which were the four main academic and artistic accomplishments required of the aristocratic ancient Eastern Asian scholar-gentleman.
Figure 1. Ikebana, Ikenobo School, courtesy of Reginaldo Bockhorni
Unlike other art forms, ikebana directly employs materials from nature, which thus builds up an explicit connection to nature and embodied experience for ikebana practitioners. The traditional structure of an ikebana arrangement has three main stems emerging from a central point and often forming the shape of a harmonious triad, symbolizing unity among the heavenly realm, humans, and the earth. The human body is very much present in the composition, forming the basic entity which interacts with the universe. Different body organizations such as radial symmetry, head/tail, upper/lower, homo lateral, and cross lateral are the patterns visualized in ikebana. Grounding and the center of gravity/levity can be felt on the plant as well as in our own body. Dynamic alignment and body phrasing can be projected to the flowers and plants. Ikebana masters usually integrate breathing, spatial intent, and different qualities of body movement when creating ikebana. This heightened perception, sensation and embodiment form the foundationbasics of the practice. During the ritual, which requires strong personal presence, the rhythm and pattern of breathing is adjusted and aligned with flowers and nature. Our breath is strongly associated with Ch’i, which is interpreted as the vital energy, moving power, and psychophysical energy in East Asia . Apparently, through this alignment process, human beings are empowered by the Ch’i from nature. This Ch’i further enhances our creativity and artistic expression. On the feeling level where the energy and dynamics are the main parameters, the inner drive towards weight (strong/light), space (direct/indirect), time (quick/sustained), and flow (bound/free) is manifested by the construction and composition of the flowers, and even by the cutting of the plants themselves. The indulging and condensing energy can be used as a strategy to create ikebana as well as a way to exert and recuperate during this creative process. Although ikebana presents a still form at the end, the whole process of creating is an interactive and dynamic “dance” between human beings and flowers and with nature at the physical, mental, and spiritual level. The wider the spectrum of the movement and the clearer the intention of the “dancer”, the richer the interaction will become. The art of balance is essential: structure/freedom, symmetric/asymmetric, stability/mobility, outer/inner, self/other, part/whole, all brought together in the Ch’i (flow) of an ikebana master who has an eye for detail and appreciation for creativity and spontaneity.
In ikebana, emphasis is placed on accentuating the lines and individual shapes of each flower, leaf, and branch. The surrounding empty space is just as important as the materials themselves. The Japanese ma (or Mao, 冇, in Chinese), the concept of interval or void in both time and space, is full of energy and feeling instead of “negative space,” which is highly valued in Zen meditation. Ma creates rhythm and flow, engaging the viewer with the composition. Ma allows us to understand that “less is indeed more.” The spatial element of ikebana triggers our thinking regarding the general space, our inner space, as well as our kinesphere (personal space) in terms of different spatial zones, reach space, and pathways (central, peripheral, and transverse). Different points in the space as well as the dimensions (vertical, horizontal, and sagittal) are taken into account.
Besides space, the ikebana practitioner consistently creates relationships with the flowers and reaches out to the environment. This requires intuition. How do we perceive the shapes and forms of our bodies and the flowers in order to bring a clear self-image to the composition of the flowers? How strongly do we focus on ourselves with our physical sensations before we open ourselves to the flowers? How do we interact with the flowers and environment? Is it a spoken, more direct form of contact or a more art-like indirect reaching? How capable and comfortable are we to accommodate ourselves to the other (flowers, space, environment), which sometimes requires more three-dimensional shaping from us? What kind of rhythm or pattern do we decide to make in this relationship?
The motif becomes one of the characteristic symbols of ikebana and a tool to remind us to project our worldview to the flowers. With its simplistic concept and presentation, ikebana requires the concentration and mindfulness of practitioners to create the clear motif of the flower arrangement. This is usually the single-task action that is nowadays not often and easily practiced in our daily life and work. Thus, ikebana helps us to experience the other deficient polarity of the duality that is essential in keeping ourselves in balance with others and with nature.
Ikebana involves “human interventions” in nature with the cutting and arranging of flowers and spaces. But eventually we realize that this is not a human intervention but an interaction with nature, and a process that allows us to learn how to realign humanity with the laws of nature. This process can be interpreted as the practice of wu-wei (无为), widely described as “non-action” in the Taoist tradition, which is a person’s innate and authentic virtue (te/de, 德) action/expression in accordance with the movements of nature, an approach that carries within itself a timeless guide to well-being .
Ikebana and ecological art therapy
Although ikebana remains one of the symbols of the cultural traditions of China and Japan, based on their philosophy and artistic, ritualized daily practices, it assumes a new meaning and role in the context of the contemporary and globalized environmental movement. This movement, in addition to many other areas of impact, has brought new and significant implications for contemporary psychology and therapy, particularly creative/expressive arts therapies. Throughout the last two decades, new scientific disciplines such as environmental psychology, ecopsychology, and ecotherapy, with their concepts and practices, have been developing. They now help us understand ikebana from a new, environmental perspective.
Nowadays, there is a significant increase in the use of various ecotherapeutic, nature-assisted environmental therapies in different clinical and non-clinical populations for therapeutic, rehabilitation, and preventive purposes. As global culture becomes more urbanized, clinicians are increasingly looking for strategies to bring the beneficial aspects of interactions with nature into a client’s life. Findings from numerous studies support the premise that contact with nature is beneficial for human health and well-being [1, 6] and supports human growth and development cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically. Here, one of the techniques of ecological art therapy, the technique of botanical arranging, which has some connection to the philosophy and practice of ikebana, will be presented.
Botanical arranging, an ecotherapeutic activity, has certain connections to ikebana both conceptually and practically. Botanical arranging draws its theoretical model from the literature and research of art therapy, ecopsychology, and horticultural therapy. Botanical arranging uses natural materials such as cut flowers, greenery, and other botanical ephemera as a metaphorical and artistic modality. Botanical arranging implies a helping practitioner, such as an art therapist, horticulturist, occupational therapist, or other therapist, facilitating a client's creation of simple arrangements of botanic materials as an art product and then exploring its embedded meaning. Botanical arranging draws on horticultural therapy and ecopsychology/ecotherapy by integrating organic materials into an art therapy approach.
In the process of creating a botanical arrangement and interacting with the resulting image, the phenomenon of subjectification of natural objects can take place, which supports the development of a subjective-ethical attitude towards nature. According to Deryabo, the process of subjectification of natural objects has the following basic functions: a) to provide people with an experience of their own personal dynamics, b) to act as an intermediary in a person’s relationship with the world, and c) to act as a subject of joint activity and communication .
Although botanical arranging can be a form of creative leisure, it will be described here as part of the art therapy process, implying interaction of a client with a helping specialist, an art therapist, horticultural therapist, occupational therapist, etc. The specialist supports the meaningful interaction of individuals with their creations, the subjectification of natural objects and, thus, the subjective-ethical mode of attitude towards nature.
Montgomery and Courtney  described how, when botanical materials are utilized in art therapy, the client and the therapist may engage in another dimension of feeling and association not present with nonorganic materials. Natural materials are evocative in ways that may be personal, ancestral, experiential, or archetypal in different layers of conscious and unconscious awareness. Plants enter a spectrum of experience through color, symmetry, scale, texture, scent, and shape whose attributes merge with an individual’s own personal history. These are primary sensory impressions that belong to a preverbal, pre-narrative world—the biophilic [9, 17, 18] component of human experience. Simply touching, smelling, and arranging botanical ephemera into pleasing symmetries can bring pleasure, alertness, and a sense of accomplishment.
Formulated by Wilson in 1984 [17, 18] and later elaborated by Kellert and Wilson , the biophilia hypothesis is described as the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” [9, p. 31]. Kellert  presumed that it is a “human dependence on nature that extends far beyond the simple issues of material and physical sustenance to encompass as well the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction” (p. 18).
Montgomery and Courtney  believe that an increase in the varieties, structures, and types of materials available, including vines, leaves, fruits, flowering branches, and seed pods, as well as flowers, yields a richer, more complex visual and psychic field for the client’s exploration in art therapy sessions. “Culturally, flowers for adornment in wedding celebrations, liturgical practices, and memorial traditions, among others, all indicate that there is an emotional content to flowers whose presence often signifies personal transformation. Thus, botanicals acquire metaphorical vitality that individuals may experience at conscious and unconscious levels of experience. Within this interwoven relationship, it is unsurprising that botanicals become signifiers of specific human events as a part of the common language” (p. 19). According to Diehl , flowers can release neurochemicals that help “eliminate pain, induce sleep, and create a sense of well-being” (p. 170).
Botanical arranging as a form of ecological, nature-based art therapy can be a viable expression of the art of biophilia [10, 11], defined as a form of creative activity in and with natural environments (green spaces) supported by biophilic reactions. Creative acts, as perceived from the art of biophilia or the ecopoiesis perspective , are rooted not so much in the need of the individual for creative self-expression in the traditional sense of the word, but in their motivation to support and serve nature and life and achieve nonduality, a balance between the natural and cultural milieu by embracing the transpersonal realm of being .
The process of botanical arranging occurs in three phases: preparation, experience, and debriefing of the experience. The first phase introduces clients to botanical arranging as an ecological art therapeutic activity and to the materials needed for a session. Then the practitioner guides the client through some warm-up exercises, either indoors or outdoors, which aim to awaken sensory awareness through touch, taste, smell, etc., of natural spaces, objects, and materials and to allow for changes to take place in the way the client is perceiving the environment. This phase can also include setting a focus related to the topic of the session, for instance choosing a question or situation that could be most relevant on that day for the client.
The second phase is the actual working part of the session wherein clients create a work of art using botanical materials and interact with it or through it with themselves and the environment, installing their creations in the landscape or using action-based creative activities such as performance, dance and movement, personal or group rituals, or multimedia events. More focused forms of reflexive and creative activity such as journaling and creating narratives can also be implemented in the session. In the third phase, clients step back from their creations to observe and discuss their work with the therapist/group in order to arrive at some insights about what happened during the process.
Assignments related to botanical arranging can be open-ended or based on certain themes. Open-ended assignments encourage participants to walk outdoors in the environment or explore natural materials indoors and pay attention to the elements of the landscape or the objects they find most interesting, attractive or appealing and select materials based on their individual responses. Mindful interaction with the natural environment and natural materials form the core of the sessions.
Case Example 1: Botanical arranging as a result of a meditative journey in the institutional green area accompanied with selection of natural materials
A mixed group of helping professionals took part in a brief wellness-focused supportive art therapy program with the goal of learning ways to develop self-regulating stress management skills and mindfulness based on their creative interaction with the natural environment. The 3-hour weekly sessions included art-making with the use of environmental botanical ephemera as a mindfulness practice.
In the beginning of one session, the therapist offered the group the possibility to spend one hour outdoors in order to explore the institutional environment of the community center where sessions took place, an enclosed field with a sports ground, some wild plants and apple, pear, and birch trees. The therapist explained that the participants were allowed to select and use any type of organic materials available on the institutional ground including vines, leaves, fruit, branches, seed pods, wild flowers, and other botanical ephemera as well as stones, soil, sand, and water, but not to destroy any life.
Participants were encouraged to take a meditative journey through the environment and find some natural materials and objects in order to create a small botanical arrangement. The therapist recommended that participants use small ceramic containers, plates, or cups up to 12 cm in diameter as a holding space for their creations. The therapist also encouraged the participants to find some place in the environment to install their art work and arrange the surrounding area, if needed. Later, they were invited to present a brief performance, a ritual in the environment, and somehow interact with their creations as meaningful objects. This part of the session was followed by the participants sharing their experience and the meaning of their performances and creations.
While presenting his art work, a 62 year-old man, a university teacher, was sitting on a bench below a birch tree and holding his botanical arrangement in his right hand and an apple in the left hand (Fig. 2). He explained his performance in the following way:
“The apple is a symbol of ecological learning and the birch tree is a symbol of my connection with nature. I also created a composition by [I] putting water and the burning candle in the vessel. I meditated for a while sitting on this bench under the birch tree and holding the vessel in the right hand and the apple in my left hand. I felt tranquility and I was inviting great powers of nature in the form of water, fire, earth and air to be with me and around me. I was absorbed in a peaceful state of mind. I felt grounded in the mystery of life.”
Figure 2. Group participant performing his ceremony
While sharing their experience at the end of this session, the participants mentioned their improved emotional state, decreased stress and energetic restoration. Some of them emphasized that by exploring the environment in their meditative walk, creating their artworks, finding and arranging a place to install them, and interacting with their creations in the environment through rituals and other activities, they felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected to the natural environment.
Case Example 2: Botanical arranging as a form of environmental art expression with substance abuse clients
Art therapy was carried out with substance abuse clients taking a course at a specialized rehabilitation center in St. Petersburg. The course is attended by people aged 30–60 years who have problems with the use of psychoactive substances. The majority are alcohol-dependent (70%); the rest are recovering from addictions to drugs. Approximately 10% of the clients use the so-called new drugs (salts, acids, hallucinogens). Men make up about 80%, whereas women comprise 20% of the rehabilitated clients.
Some of the sessions involved creating botanical arrangements from natural materials, mostly found in the surrounding environment, with the goals of reducing emotional tension, stimulating the participants' emotions and senses, supporting mindful interaction with the environment, cultivating a sense of beauty, raising environmental consciousness, and improving self-perception and self-understanding.
Botanical arranging and other forms of environmental art activities using natural materials and found objects took place regularly during the course. In some cases, participants were invited to go outside for a while and, while walking in the park, especially in autumn, collect natural materials that they liked. Returning then to the studio, they were asked to create a composition from them, for example, in the form of a botanical arranging (“green mandalas”), using cardboard plates as the basis for their construction.
One of these sessions was held in the second half of September 2018. After creating simple botanical arrangements from natural materials, the group discussed the work and their impressions of the session. The participants noted that they could see the beauty of simple things and that they noticed the surprising diversity and harmony of the shades and shapes created by nature itself. The beauty of natural ephemera became more apparent due to the organization of the found materials into simple compositions (Figs. 3 and 4). The participants also noted that as a result of a relatively short walk outdoors (15–20 minutes), their emotional state improved and a feeling of joy and satisfaction from the activity increased.
Describing his botanical arrangement made of leaves in the form of a mandala, Valery (name changed) (alcoholism, 57 years old) said that it resembled his life, in which different colors were mixed. He associated the left side of his “green mandala” with his childhood, while the middle part of his artwork, made of leaves with different shadows, was associated with the present period of his life, and the right part, with its yellow and reddish hues, was associated with future. Valery considered an acorn located at the top of the composition as the symbol of rebirth (Fig.3).
Figure 3. Botanical arranging made by Valery
Ruslan (name changed) (alcoholism, 48 years old) realized that his arrangement reflects running in a circle, but with a stronger intention to come out of the circle and to bring his talents associated with acorns into fruition.
Figure 4. Botanical arranging made by Ruslan.
The ancient art of ikebana is a vivid example of the creative collaboration of humans and nature, which allows us to see and create beauty as a manifestation of natural and cultural forms and, at the same time, to support self-transformation and spiritual enrichment.
The art of ikebana takes on a new meaning and role in the context of the modern environmental movement. This movement, along with other effects, supports the development of innovative approaches in modern psychology and therapy, in particular in art therapy and creative/expressive arts therapies in general.
The article presented one of the techniques of ecological art therapy, the technique of botanical arranging, which has a certain connection with the philosophy and practice of ikebana. Botanical arranging is a creative activity that is based on the theories and practice of art therapy, ecopsychology and horticultural therapy. It is not only a means of healing, but also of harmonizing relations between human beings and the more-than-human world, and it encourages the development of environmental awareness.
The conceptualization of botanical arranging from the ecopsychological perspective was presented and examples of its use as an art therapy tool used in the training of helping professionals and as part of a rehabilitation program for drug and substance abuse clients was presented.
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Reference for citations
Kopytin, A., Zhou, T. Yu. (2021). From ikebana to botanical arranging: Artistic, therapeutic, and spiritual alignment with nature. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)