“You should come,” said my business coach. The last time someone whose opinion I really respected said something to me that started with “you should”, I listened and that turned into a 25 year growth experience. Against my first skeptical reaction, I replied, “Alright then, I will.”
What I committed to in that moment was a creative adventure called Live Your Spirit Retreat. It is a weekend away in a beautiful location where the main focus is just being yourself and letting your creativity loose. What I didn’t realize at the time was how life-changing the experience would be.
I arrived at the retreat not knowing a single soul except the person who had invited me. Even as an extrovert this is slightly uncomfortable. However, everyone was so welcoming it didn’t take long for me to feel at home. Our host, Joanne, greeted me like a long-lost friend. By the way, if you’re ever in need of a really great hug, she’s your gal.
Then I saw it – a big empty canvas staring at me. It was sitting on a table with my name beautifully inscribed beside it. And I was supposed to do something with it. Are you kidding? I can’t even draw stick people. Where is my escape route? Fortunately the first evening was all about relaxing and getting to know one another so I could live in denial until the morning.
The next morning we started with a brief guided meditation. In order to get the creative juices flowing, it was aimed at connecting with your inner child. This is where things got a little difficult for me. Mine was not a happy childhood. It was filled with abuse, emotional neglect, and ridicule. It is not somewhere I generally revisit. But by the time I realized where the meditation was going, it was too late. I was there. And I lost it. Right there in front of a roomful of people I had just met, I had a total breakdown, complete with an intense somatic response in the form of a massive nosebleed.
I would normally say I was horrified, but I was too deep in the emotion to feel anything else. I cried and shook in an amazingly non-self conscious way. It was only later that I realized I was able to do so because the energy in the room was not one of judgmental “she needs to get her s#*t together,” or the unease of “her emotions are making me uncomfortable.” The overwhelming energy was compassion. Pure unconditional compassion from these near-strangers is what let me release what needed to come out.
After going upstairs to get myself cleaned up, I came back down feeling extremely raw and vulnerable. And then the most amazing thing happened. Nobody treated me like I was broken. Nobody pussy-footed around me like I might implode if looked at sideways. Nobody avoided me. Nobody ran screaming from my pain. This roomful of women just bore witness and stayed present with me. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.
Needless to say the canvas now seemed less like my worst enemy. Slightly. I was sharing a table with a woman named Johane, who is blissfully an engineer. I say blissfully because we totally understood one another. Being science-y types, we were both way out of our comfort zones. Joanne had given us newbies a brief overview of all the art supplies and the various ways to use them so I was on overwhelm.
I stared at the empty canvas and tried to convince myself that a grown-up should not be having a cardiac arrhythmia over a blank slate. But I was. I don’t generally put myself in situations where I feel completely incompetent, but I could not have chosen an area where I felt less inadequate. As my brain was about to permanently freeze over, a sweet voice from the other side of the table said, “I know how you feel.”
Johane had been to the retreat for the first time the year before. She gave me one very sage piece of advice – just put something on the canvas. Anything. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You can always paint over it,” said my very wise new friend.
What? You get do-overs in this game? And no one is going to laugh at you or ridicule you? This was certainly not my experience in childhood, which in fact was the last time I created something just to create it. Which was apparently the whole point of being here. Oh god, what have I gotten myself into?
Deciding that I couldn’t possibly expose more of my soul than I already had, I painted the whole scary canvas orange simply because it is a colour that makes me happy. Hey, you’re talking about somebody who picks wine because she likes the look of the bottle.
Intimidation and Inner Voices
Next challenge, don’t be intimidated by what everyone else is doing. Easier said than done given that there were some very talented people there. Some of these “real artists” were intensely bent over their paintings, oblivious to the rest of the room, while I stood there not having a clue what to do next.
Johane to the rescue again. “Sometimes I just play with colour in my art journal to get started,” she said. I looked over to see what she was doing and she sheepishly showed me pages of colour swatches she had painted and labeled with the number of the tube it came from or which colours she had mixed to make it. She shyly explained that she liked to keep track of which colours she enjoyed so she could easily find them again. My scientific brain wondered what was wrong with that. Clearly our host had seated us together for a reason.
Johane showed me how she experimented to find colours she liked together and suddenly it all seemed less frightening. I started adding more to the canvas, all the while trying to ignore the inner voice that kept saying, “You suck at art,” or “That’s pathetic.”
Throughout the rest of the weekend I battled those inner voices. They critiqued, they compared, they insulted, but I kept going and eventually produced two paintings. Everyone was encouraging and somehow managed to comment without sounding condescending. Believe me, that is no small feat.
In the end, by opening myself up to creativity, what I really opened was the door on vulnerability. Why is that important?
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Brené Brown
And those are the things that are most important to me in my life and in my business. I pride myself on looking at things differently than everyone else. My approach to helping people is innovative and demands creativity in the form of thinking outside the box. My mission, in fact, is to destroy the box that compartmentalizes people into body parts, and change the way we look at models of health and disease. But you can’t do any of that without going straight through the minefield of vulnerability.
“To create is to make something that never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.” Brené Brown
The painting, as it turns out, is a vehicle. It is a sure-fire avenue to accessing vulnerability. It so happens that even the “real artists” in the crowd are not feeling any less vulnerable when they produce something we all think is beautiful. Realizing that is what binds us together.
A Happy Return
I recently returned a year later to the same retreat. In the interim I have done some painting, drawing, and doodling. These are things I never would have done before. As a result, not only have I nearly silenced the negative self-talk, I have discovered the joy in the experience – the pure joy of creating just for the sake of creating and not to please anyone else, including my inner critic.
This year I arrived with happy anticipation. I let loose with the paint and tried things I have never done before. I was able to enjoy the creations of others without feeling the need for comparison. I was filled with joy, and there’s no better feeling than that.
I dared to do the inner child meditation again, hoping that joy would trump sadness this time. I was able to see things mostly in a positive light until faced with the image of my inner child creating something and then showing it to someone else. My inner voice said, “no one cares.” But then my spirit said loud and clear, “I do.” The adult me gathered little me in her arms and told her she mattered and that she was loved. This time I cried tears of sadness for what was, but overlaid with immense joy and gratitude for what is. This is now my truth:
I am enough.
I am creative.
I am worthy of love.
Simply because I am.
If you are interested in exploring your creativity, please visit Joanne’s website at indetail where you will find numerous offerings of workshops, as well as another retreat coming up in May, 2019.