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!