Sometimes in therapy there are moments of intense magic. A state of flow is achieved and pervades the entire group space; the collective unconscious is tapped into resulting in a transcendental state of heightened awareness, bordering on a peak experience or; a client steps into a pool of insight which changes their entire viewpoint and we witness this shift. These moments of magic need to be celebrated, acknowledged, and honoured for what they are, as they occur. It truly is an honour to be witness to these moments of magic, just as it is an honour to be a part of any therapy.
In art therapy, we are offered an additional avenue from which these moments of magic can occur, and often, I have found, the creation of art motivates and energizes magic moments. I will illustrate a potent example of magic occurring within the group art therapy space.
I introduced an intervention which I have given the moniker of strengths beads. This directive invites clients to create a list of strengths, thinking about: strengths they currently have; strengths they would like to develop and; strengths they see in others which they admire. Once the list has been generated, clients are then invited to create either a bracelet or key-chain (in some cases clients opt to create a necklace, or merely choose beads to keep). While they are creating their bracelet, they are invited to mindfully think about their strengths, and to be mindful of which beads they are choosing and why. I invite clients to think about their strengths as they choose their beads, intentionally imbuing the beads with the energy, or felt sense of their strengths. This bracelet acts as a wearable badge of sorts, a reminder of their strengths. Additionally, the tactile and visual sensations provided by the bracelet can act as a grounding activity for clients in times of stress and high anxiety.
Once clients have created their bracelet, they are then invited to focus on one or two of their strengths from the list they have generated, and to represent this strength visually. Clients are provided with paper, ink, pencil, water-colours, acrylics, and pencil crayons. The reason I invite clients to visualize one of their strengths is to entrench their belief in the strength they choose – inviting them to mindfully attend to one of their strengths encourages them to acknowledge and identify the strength as a core part of their self.
While facilitating group art therapy with a group of youth with varying mental health concerns, I invited this directive into the group space, and as clients created their bracelets a state of collective flow was achieved. The noises generated by the beads, paired with the meditative practice found in the repetitive focused attention of choosing a bead, placing a bead, and creating a pattern, created a calming and meditative silence which permeated the entire group space. As clients shared their bracelets with the group, a number of insights were uncovered and celebrated – by the speaker and by other group members. It came across as common knowledge, when a client identified x as their strength, the entire group responded in turn with “but of course, you exude that strength.” It was an incredible moment of collective identification and acknowledgement of each others strengths, not only supporting individual clients efficacy and belief in their strength, but also strengthening group dynamics and encouraging clients who normally would not share, to share with the group. An environment of acceptance was fostered, encouraging a weakening of inhibitions and an increased likelihood that group members would contribute to the group experience.
Once clients moved on to the second stage of the directive, this state of flow continued, and each client in turn appeared to unconsciously know how to illustrate their strength without any forethought needed. One client illustrated her strength by a mandala coloured in with purple and blue, black stars on the outside of the mandala, and words written across the top and bottom encouraging her to follow her dreams. As she shared with the group she mentioned how she had made a number of mistakes while creating the image – she smudged paint on one side of the paper where she did not want anything to be drawn. She automatically integrated this smudge into her painting, by applying more water-colour over top. She created a mirrored image of this smudge on the other side of the page, creating two nearly symmetrical smudges on either side of the mandala. I was transcended as she shared this image with the group, noticing her use of the mandala in the center of the page, and how she included two smudges – one on either side of the mandala, and two lines of text – one above, one below. This created an entirely equal and symmetrical image: interestingly, the mandala is a representation of the totality of the self, or wholeness, and Jung suggests is divided into a quaternity, the spontaneous creation of which can indicate the ego’s capacity to assimilate unconscious material, an anticipation of wholeness, which is just beyond our reach (Jung, 2013). Her ability and willingness to integrate her perceived mistakes into the complete image portrayed a mindful intention to her final image, and played on her strengths to be open and accepting. Her use of the mandala and vying for wholeness mirrored my recently uncovered insights through my own self-analysis – and mirrored another clients use of multiple mandalas in her own work. The client seated directly across from her created a piece depicting a brain, half of which (the left side) was visualized as the brain itself, and the right half depicted as a series of growing flowers. She suggested that it represented her open-mindedness and willingness to grow: this being a verbalization of the previous clients visual representation of wholeness and growth exhibited by the mandala. Both images mirrored each other, as did the intention behind the images. It was as if the collective unconscious opened like a rift in the sky above us, allowing us to collectively access our state of flow, and access these archetypes for visualization, and self-understanding. Jung would acknowledge this series of events as synchronistic – I finished reading Jung’s synchronicity a week ago. If we mindfully attend to the events we see: client 1 creates a mandala and a quaternity on the page; client 2 illustrates a visual representation of her own strengths as a brain and flowers, mirroring client 1’s felt sense and intentions, client 3 draws a series of mandalas; and lastly, the mirroring of my recently uncovered insights. Four events, four equal divisions in a mandala – we collectively embodied a mandala within the group space, each event contributing one portion of the wholeness of the mandala.
I would qualify this group therapy session as one which was riddled with magical moments. The magic began as soon as we sat down to begin art therapy, and continued through our accessing a collective state of flow, mirroring each others felt senses and intentions, and embodying the mandala inside the group space. I felt honoured to be witness to this series of magical moments, which was strengthened by the groups response to the entire group process: one of complete and total mindful acceptance for what had just transpired. As group ended, there was a collective sigh of relief – not that it was over, but rather, that it had occurred in the first place.
Jung, C.G. (2013). The Psychology of the Transference. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. (Originally published 1983).