by Kathleen Horne
Many of us are noticing a deep call – to live a more authentic life, to be more intentional, more creative – to “be the change”. We look around us, and we see a world in serious trouble, a world filled with extreme divisiveness, polarization, fear, mistrust, tragedy and horror.
How do we respond? This is a huge and vital question.
This morning, I offer some of my own thoughts and feelings about this.
I find it almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the external polarization. Sometimes it seems like the only way to fight for what I believe in.
And yet, I am sure there is a deeper call. Something that echoes and reverberates within, and also in the world around us. A call to a new way. A call to gather, in the equality and inclusiveness of the circle, on behalf our planet Earth. An urgent call that demands us to use our imaginations, our creative wisdom, our best selves. A call that demands us to stand up for what we believe in, and live it, fully. A call that asks us to look into the darkness, our own darkness, and feel the power that lives there. A call to harness that power, to engage with it, to be vigilant with ourselves in our own quest toward integration and wholeness.
As I look around, I imagine that the world is cracking open. Sometimes this cracking open seems like nothing but death and destruction. In my better moments, though, I imagine that is it cracking open to reveal the birth of something new. This is really what I believe in my deepest self, and I know that I must go into that place, to be willing to crack myself open and find my own deeper truth. To discover, in a sense, what I am truly made of.
My most reliable path to this deeper place in myself is through the activation of my own creative process. Through art-making, movement, writing, and being in circle with others. Through taking a little time each day to get quiet, check in with myself, invite and allow an image and writing to arrive on the page, and perhaps to explore it by moving my body in response. By making this commitment to myself, I am making a commitment to my own authenticity, and to showing up in the world as the best version of myself that I can manage each day. It seems like a simple commitment, but it is not easy. It is a commitment to conscious living, and I meet this commitment with varying levels of success. When I step off the path, I take a breath, and begin again. It is my practice.
If I commit to you to share my practice, it will help hold me accountable, and hopefully it will inspire you to find your own practice. I plan to keep sharing, through these blog posts and Facebook. I really want to demystify this change process, and let you see how it works for me.
This practice is not so much about the art, as it is about the discovery. Sometimes I love the images and sometimes they disturb me, at least at first, until I listen deeply to their messages, and then they become guides.
The day after Solstice, we held an Expressive Arts Discovery virtual gathering.This is the image and writing that came for me. It came unbidden, as I tuned inward and listened deeply.
“The darkness is here, and I can’t live only in the light. The light comes only when I am willing to enter the darkness. lose my way, forget my map. In the darkness, I go deep within and discover the resources I may have forgotten that I have. In the darkness I stumble upon the opening to a cave that holds a long-forgotten light. I pick up the light and carry it with me. It guides my way home.” Kathleen (through the image)
As I reflect now, a week later, I think the Solstice called me into the dark, and that call was working within me, even though I wasn’t consciously aware. The image and writing tell me that only by being willing to go into my own darkness will I ever be able to know the fullness of my own light. Only by unearthing the light that may be buried within, hidden away at some earlier time when it might have been too scary, or risky, to own it, can I live fully. Only then can I live in the world in from my own place of power. I believe that the Earth, that our future, is demanding that we show up, in life, now, as fully as we are able.
At Expressive Arts Florida Institute we have created virtual, live, online expressive arts gatherings, in the spirit of the circle. We see these as opportunities to join in community for brief and profound personal check-ins and sharing. We believe that part of our own journey is to create circles of connection that are not restricted by geography.
Join us for Expressive Arts Discovery, virtually. These are brief, 90-minute circles of creative expression.
Or, Tending the Creative Fire, virtual mini-retreats are a deeper, 4-hour immersion.
If you are local, consider joining us for Open Studio, every Wednesday from 10 am – 1 pm, by donation.
All of these are powerful circles of inquiry and change. Circles such as these are needed. Join us or create your own.
Kathleen Horne, MA, LMHC, REACE
Welcome to the 4th segment of our in-depth interview with Mitchell Kossak, PhD, LMHC, REAT
We are bringing Mitchell to Sarasota on March 4, 2017, and he will be facilitating a full-day workshop: IMAGINE HARMONY: Image, Rhythm, Sound, and Embodied Healing
Today, Mitchell addresses the vitally important subject of healing trauma through Expressive Arts.
Kathleen: Mitchell, I know that many of us are looking for ways to make change internally and externally, especially during these most difficult times. People are interested in the idea of working with trauma through the arts, and can benefit from your approach. You speak about re-imagining a world of contentiousness and fear. I would love to hear more, and share with our readers today.
Mitchell: When used in a conscientious way, the arts have the potential to help address individual or communal traumatic moments, in a way that helps to bring deeper awareness, feeling and benevolence to unfathomable experiences.
Traumatic stress, such as long-term chronic abuse and neglect or long term environmental stress inhibits the ability to fully function, and is exacerbated when there is even more serious trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, or if someone grows up under the constant threat of harm, say in a war zone, or if someone lives through a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or tsunami.
Kathleen: What happens in the body, in these situations?
Mitchell: The nervous system goes into hyperarousal, or an acute stress response. When there has been a traumatic event in a person’s life, the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing a signal from the brain to the hormonal system, releasing cortisol that just won’t shut off. I have come to understand this reciprocal resonant response from years of witnessing these disconnected states as an expressive arts therapist and also from years of training as a body-centered psychotherapist.
Kathleen: As an expressive arts therapist, how do you address that?
Mitchell: The first thing I want to do is to begin to engage the breath. We need to engage the body’s relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system by first slowing way down and by getting the person more in touch with their bodily responses. By beginning with the breath, there is a possibility of reengaging the inner resiliency available for reestablishing a more regulated and healthy rhythmic flow. I often start with grounding techniques similar to what is taught in Yoga and other martial arts as a way of restoring physical integration. [ You can read about specific example in my book Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward an Understanding of Embodied Empathy].
Kathleen: Can you explain what resonance theory is and how this applies?
Mitchell: Yes. In the theoretical framework of resonance theory, the tendency of one object to force another object into vibrational motion is referred to as a forced resonance. You might remember from your physics lessons that if a tuning fork is struck, another tuning fork within proximity will begin to vibrate. This is the phenomenon of forced resonance. And in this context a larger frequency will always overtake a weaker frequency. Our bodies are natural resonators and begin to vibrate with the sounds, images, environments, and emotions around them. In the case of catastrophic traumatic events (as a resonant experience) the vibrations or energies in the form of sounds, images, and internal stories create a resonance and begin to vibrate with the nervous system affecting how we act and react. In extreme traumatic situations the internal body based neurobiology shifts to elicit signals that the environment and everything in it is not safe as the resonant field created in the traumatic event will continue to vibrate in the form of internal images, sensations and sounds.
Kathleen: Can you give an example?
Mitchell: We see this in returning veterans of war who are acting and reacting as if they are still in the field of battle. Their minds might tell them they are back home but their nervous system is still vibrating with the images and sounds of what they experienced on the field of battle. More and more research is emerging that shows the power of the arts having a positive effect in changing the frequency or resonance in the neurobiology of the traumatic event whether that is in drawings and paintings or in drumming or singing circles or in Yoga or movement experiences, or dramatic enactments, or in using creative writing to change the resonant field.
Kathleen: So, through engagement in the expressive arts, we can change the resonant field of trauma to one of hope?
Mitchell: The application of creative and expressive arts is being used in trauma treatment and what is being shown again and again is that the arts have the capacity to bring about changes in outlook, moods, attitudes and emotions, similar to what happens to the mind-body connection in meditation. The arts can help to facilitate change because when an individual or group engages in artistic experiences they enter into a state of flow and present-moment awareness. When this flow state occurs, the nervous system shifts from a sympathetic response or a resonant state of alarm (fight/flight) to a parasympathetic response or one of embodied safety. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body begins to form a new resonant response and can learn (or re-learn) once again how to choose between alert/alarm and calm and safe. In a trauma state, only the state of alarm is present. Vibrational realities of hope or fear can also take the form of what we hear or see, and the stronger vibration will always dominate. So focusing on practices and experiences that elicit hope, courage, faith can begin to create the stronger resonance.
Kathleen: This is powerful, and hopeful. The traumatic event causes internal vibrations, sensations and images of fear, alarm, and danger, and, in the work with expressive arts (images, sounds, vibrations, rhythms) we are creating the possibility of restoring a dominant resonant field of calm and hope.
Mitchell: Yes. Another outcome of the flow state through engagement in the arts is that it allows individuals to return to a natural state of play, which allows for a natural state of self-regulation to occur where the individual can learn new ways of creatively addressing how they experience their world. The arts are truly transformational and each of us who are engaging in arts for health, resiliency and change are true leaders in the fight against fear, terror, disillusionment and all affronts against basic human dignity.
There are many expressive arts therapists working with survivors of environmental, communal or personal trauma that have made great strides in addressing this very difficult issue and if you want to read some of these stories addressing current global concerns you can read the special issue of the Journal of Applied Arts (Fall 2016) which I oversaw as the chief editor of this issue.
Kathleen: Thank you, Mitchell. Can you say something about how this relates to your upcoming workshop in Sarasota?
Mitchell: More work needs to be done in understanding how the arts used expressively and conscientiously can affect the contentious and difficult times we are living in. That is why I titled this upcoming workshop Imagine Harmony, because I believe that we need to find ways to re-imagine the world we live in so that we can hopefully change the dominant resonance of fear, terror, insecurity, hopelessness and pervasive anxiety. By engaging in arts practice we can begin to re-tune our own imagery and internal rhythms which in turn will begin to create a new resonance in ourselves and in our communities.
Kathleen: Again, many thanks, Mitchell for sharing your important work with us. As an expressive arts therapist and practitioner, I find a potent seed of hope in the midst of these challenging and divisive times.
We are so looking forward to your return to Sarasota on March 4. In our next segment of this blog series, we will talk about some of your extensive work internationally!
The European Graduate School’s Master’s Program is a modular system of coursework designed for persons seeking an initial or additional graduate degree in Masters of Arts Degree in Expressive Arts Therapy, or Expressive Arts Coaching. Consulting, or Expressive Arts Conflict Transformation and Peace Building
Expressive Arts Florida Institute is a Module K provider for the EGS Master’s Program. Our Level One Certificate meets the requirements for Module K.
EAFI students interested in attaining a Master’s Degree at EGS may use their EAFI Level One Training as EGS Module K. Each student must make application to EGS, as well as to EAFI. Please contact EGS for details. http://www.expressivearts.egs.edu/. EGS fees and tuition are separate from, and in addition to, the fees and tuition paid to Expressive Arts Florida Institute.
For more information about EGS, please visit:
Join a tribe of creative seekers from wherever you are.
“Engaging in the creative process with the facilitators at Expressive Arts Institute Florida was like taking a refreshing drink. I went into the retreat curious about how it would feel to engage in such an intimate process through a computer screen. Kathleen, Victoria and Tamara are so skilled at holding space and creating a safe and nourishing container that we transcended the screen’s barrier.” -Julie P.
Embracing Change through Expressive Arts is our next Online Training Retreat. January 6-7, 2017
This is a small group experience and space is limited.
This blog series – Expressive Arts in the World- engages the questions: How is this work actually practiced in the world, and how does it change lives?
Last week I published the first in a series of conversations with Mitchell Kossak, author of Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Towards an Understanding of Embodied Empathy.
Today, we continue this rich conversation.
Mitchell Kossak may need no introduction to many of you. He is truly a guiding light in this field – an international presenter, professional musician, expressive arts therapist, university professor, massage therapist and bodyworker, and author of Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Towards an Understanding of Embodied Empathy (2015).
Would you like to work with Mitchell? March 4 in Sarasota, Florida is a great opportunity! Details and registration are here, with early bird pricing available.
by Kathleen Horne
Kathleen: Mitchell, thanks so much for this interview. It is always great to speak with you, and to share your work with others. Your workshop in Sarasota in 2014 was a big success. We are looking forward to sponsoring you again in March! For our readers, can you describe your Expressive Arts work?
Mitchell: Thanks, Kathleen. As an Expressive Arts Therapist. I use all of the arts and body-centered approaches in clinical practice. I currently work with adults, adolescents, couples and families specializing in issues related to trauma, anxiety, depression and life changes. In the past I have worked with the elderly, people with autism, and young children.
Kathleen: And what settings do you work in?
Mitchell: Currently I work in private practice and I give group trainings. I am an associate professor of Expressive Arts Therapy at Lesley University where I teach in the Masters and Doctoral programs.
Kathleen: There are many different pathways into the expressive arts. Some come to this work as artists first, others as therapists, educators, and more. Can you describe your pathway?
Mitchell: I came into this work in 1981 with a background as a musician and actor. However, I have training in all of the art modalities and utilize them in my clinical work. For 10 years I trained in body-oriented psychotherapies, including becoming a certified massage therapist and bodyworker and a registered Polarity Practitioner. I have also studied and practiced energy based healing forms such as Tai Chi, Chi Gong, Vispassana meditation, and Iyengar yoga for over 30 years.
Kathleen: You bring to this field a background in the arts – primarily as a musician and actor -and training and experience in body and energy work, yoga, meditation, and psychotherapy. This is such a comprehensive, holistic perspective! You also work in both clinical and educational settings.
Mitchell: Yes, I have a clinical practice, and, for the past 20 years I have taught graduate and doctoral students in the Expressive Therapies program at Lesley University.
Kathleen: What do you see as the main benefits of expressive arts in serving people, changing lives, and affecting the world?
Mitchell: Many people are out of tune with themselves and those around them, and out of tune with their environment and to a larger mystical or spiritual presence. This disharmony can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, anxiety and depression. Expressive arts therapy taps into creative resources, allowing individuals to re-imagine themselves, to gain greater insight and understanding into whatever issues they are dealing with.
Kathleen: Can you say more about re-imagining?
Mitchell: Creative impulse can be seen as the underlying life force that gives a sense of renewed energy and possibility. Art enlivens the human spirit. The arts help us to make sense of our lives. Art provides a way to express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds. Artists who ‘play’ with sound, imagery, movement, language, or enactment understand this feeling and often talk about this kind of experience as transcendent, sacred or spiritual. Artistic practices can be such a powerful tool to stabilize and ground individuals and can lead to more integrative experiences. The arts have always been used throughout history to maintain healthy physical, emotional and spiritual well-being individually and in communities.
Kathleen: You speak of “attunement” in Expressive Arts therapy. Can you tell us about that?
Mitchell: The arts in practice and in therapeutic contexts offer expanded ways of being attuned to emotional states and life conditions with individuals, relationships, groups, and communities. Historically the arts in the form of sound, movement, image and ritualistic enactment have been utilized in sacred and mystical traditions. In many of these traditions engagement in the arts have been used to address physical and spiritual well-being, amounting to a felt sense of union, with other people, other life forms, objects, surroundings, the Divine, or the universe itself. By focusing on the present moment in creative process, engagement in the arts creates a shift in awareness from ordinary daily experience to a felt sense of changes internally and externally.
Kathleen: This has profound and far-reaching implications.
Mitchell: It is similar to what developmental attachment theorists talk about to describe the relational attachment between mother and infant where there is a tuning in process between mother and infant, or a shared feeling state. In the back and forth between mother and child, there is a kind of rhythmic interaction that takes place through sounds, facial expressions, and affect that communicates a sense of safety in the world. When we engage in the arts and particularly with inner rhythms, we have the opportunity to re-engage with this deep inner sense of connection.
Kathleen: Could you say more about the common ground and the integration of the art with therapeutic practice?
Mitchell: The arts awaken sensitivity, empathy and compassion. Artists, musicians, dancers, poets, and actors are trained to open and tune their senses toward an authentic expression of the human condition in order to affect a kind of awakening in the witness, audience, listener, or reader. In similar ways therapists and artists are both looking to understand and ‘tune into’ the human condition. Engagement in expressive arts brings about embodied awareness of rhythmic flow, and on mutual connections that occur when there is an intense process of deep listening, kinesthetic awareness, and deep attention to what is occurring in the moment, which can be thought of as mindfulness attention. In the practice of expressive arts therapy these transpersonal states can often be experienced through play, improvisation, aesthetics, space, time, and mind/body connections. As a therapist enters into the intimate world of the patient, the artist enters into the intimate world of material, space, sound, and a deep connection with others. In these uncertain and distressed times, the skills that we can bring as expressive arts practitioners become even more important in helping to guide ourselves and others through difficult emotions.
Kathleen: Thank you so much, Mitchell! I am really enjoying learning more about your perspective, and your deeply thoughtful and holistic approach to Expressive Arts, and I am sure our community will benefit greatly by learning from you and participating in your workshop.
In the next installment of this series, we will talk about your international work.
Stay tuned, everyone!