Liminal Dancer

Posted July 11, 2020 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: embodied spirituality, liminal space, social change

Tags: , ,

Liminal Dancer

The dis-ease and trauma within which we live is planet-wide. Changes must take root and flower in every system, institution, home and individual. In such a world, how do use my gifts as spiritual guide to support social change???? If I answer this question with my mind, I fabricate heroic plans, despite having learned that heroism is inauthentic. Heroism insists on ego-driven improvements to what it sees as an inadequate and unacceptable world and self.  This compulsive pretense goes to the heart of the dis-ease we face. Instead, relating with compassion amidst ordinary life is where relational healing occurs.

Since my mind gets stuck in old ego patterns, I turn to my body’s discernment. Inspired by My Grandmother’s Handsby Resmaa Menakem, and its reminders of body-settling practices, one morning while commuting to work (for an 11-hour day among very unsettled bodies), I began humming. Without conscious choice, I found myself humming the melody of Amazing Grace.  I began to sing. Out came spontaneous new words, starting with the question, “What can I do in times like these?” and verses emerged – “we feel it in our bodies, the suffering – it starts in our bodies, the healing” …. I pulled out my phone and recorded this song. After recording, I kept singing – repeating verses, watching them evolve into a final verse (not recorded):

It starts in the body

becoming safe,

it starts in the body


it starts in the body

finding peace

in the midst of our suffering.

     I entered the eating disorder treatment clinic where I have worked as art therapist for 13 years singing these words. This is Spirit’s answer for me – I have gifts to help bodies find safety and calm. Whatever work I continue or add to my life, this settling of suffering bodies (mine included) is the moment to moment practice.

At work, bigger than normal changes had begun months before the virus. The pandemic has unraveled everything further. Every week has been a practice of surrender, of doing what is needed imperfectly, of losing my bearings and only temporarily finding them. We are all in the same state, life’s normal flux thrust into disequilibrium and chaos.  One of my biggest stresses has been the eating disorder clinic piloting a teen PHP during this pandemic, while we’ve also learned to provide telehealth to all our adult patients. Every week has involved major shifts in practice, letting go of what I did well, while struggling with new situations.  (Thich Naht Hanh’s mindfulness teachings have been so helpful during this time!!!)

Yesterday afternoon, I took 7 anxious teens outside for a mindful walk, a welcome break in PHP’s day-long therapy. We trekked around a nearby pond and watched a pair of blue herons among lotus flowers growing from pond-mud. I returned, settled in my body, to attend a Zoom staff meeting. There I found out that we will be switching to an entirely new schedule for the PHP. My future responsibilities are unclear and to be determined. Instead of solidifying ground, this fall will bring more disruption. More feelings of loss and uncertainty. More confused bearings and having to adjust.

The peace of breathing with lotus and herons evaporated. My body flew into panic, thinking, “I’ll just quit and focus entirely on private practice!” Grand schemes spun from mind – heroism, grasping at control and the illusion that safety is found in independence. Luckily, I observed my state. I returned to body settling and mindfulness and loving kindness.

I put the finishing touches on an art piece I have been collaging, titled: The Truth Is the Ground Has Always Been Shaky, Forever (from Pema Chodron).  In it, a woman is dancing on fragmented, quaking, and constantly shifting ground.  A series of shock waves is occurring. One of the dancer’s feet stands on a Covid virus. Ripples of melting glaciers, disappearing rainforests, and other terrain quake under her other foot. Her body is covered with words from Alice Walker, Thich Naht Hanh, and Felicia Murrell about hard times and furious dancing, about two arrows hitting the same place, about racism and liminal space. I painted the dancer as a dark-skinned woman, reminding me that, globally, people of color have the most difficulties to navigate, as we live our lives fighting to dismantle unjust structures and experimentally create a more compassionate society. The dancer is me and every woman. She is Mother of All affirming that we can do this dance. We can soul-journey through the turbulence that is being quickened.

Covid-19 and Dreams

Posted July 11, 2020 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized


Here’s a link to a blogpost I contributed to the Natural Dreamwork blog. You can learn about Natural Dreamwork and access other posts from the team of Natural Dreamwork practitioners at

Natural Dreamwork During COVID-19 and Global Liminality

In My Contemplative Artist’s Toolbox

Posted January 11, 2020 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy, Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,
deer dream

Deer dream

As a contemplative artist, my tools include metaphor, creativity, imagination, and symbolism. But what exactly are these tools? Here is how I understand these essential human capacities:




Metaphor is a poetic linking of two unlike things to reveal a deep inner connection between the two. Metaphors are not just a literary device. All creative processes engage in metaphoric connecting. Spiritual experience can only be expressed through metaphor, a dance, an image, an AUM of breath and heart vibration, carrying some essence of the ineffable within them. Metaphors are packed with emotion and sensory, felt experience, which, when taken in consciously, wake those feelings inside our bodies in ways that make us more deeply alive. The roots of the word are from meta(over, across) and pherein (to carry, to bear, including to bear children as in give birth), so in the most ancient, embodied sense of the word, metaphor means to bear across. Engaging in metaphor pushes us beyond the threshold of what we used to know. Metaphors birth new life.




Imagination is the making of images within the dreaming mind. This imagining is active in us at all times. During sleep, the imagination breaks free from the control of the ego and we wander in realms not possible in waking life. But while awake, we also imagine. We imagine as we remember, as we share stories, as we tell our histories, as we plan events, as we create and anticipate the future.  There is a primary imagination, as in our dreams, that comes without our conscious effort, and a secondary imagination, as in our art-making and other creative activities, in which human creativity extends primary imagination into manifest form. The material that primary imagination gives us is made of image and raw emotion within the living body. Because we are disconnected from emotion and the body, we dismiss this primary imaginal material as bizarre and meaningless. But when we learn to feel into it, we discover that every offering from the primary imagination is innately healing, somehow born from the wholeness we have been separated from. Those who engage in a regular practice of dreamwork experience the healing depth of primary imagination.

Imagination is often lumped synonymously with fantasy. This is a superficial misperception.  Fantasy is the ego’s conjuring. Imagination comes from soul.  When I picture my dream house, my ego is fantasizing something it may strive for.  When I am afraid and picture threatening scenarios unfolding, my ego is fantasizing, offering fight-flight stories, which is ego’s speciality. Self-aggrandizing and self-protection, the functions of ego, are the purpose of fantasy. To meet the healing bear in a dream, to write a soulfully true poem, and to paint from deep within, we must learn to clear the ego, and all its defensive fantasy, out of the way, and to humbly meet the frighteningly transformative soul material imagination gives us.





Creativity is our way of solving problems while playing.

All humans are creative. We have survived for millennia because we are creative. Many animals are creative too. (To see animal creativity in action, look for the Youtube video of a creative raven using a metal lid to slide down a snowy roof.)  Whether we are figuring out how to sled, fly to the moon, paint luminous flesh-tones, or express emotion in violin patterns, we are engaging with challenging questions, encountering unknowns and seeming impossibilities, and experimenting in ways that increase connection to the materials being used, expand our learning, and awake a desire to keep going, building up on what has come before. Some creative processes feel scary and painful, fraught with many obstacles, seeming failures, and states of feeling blocked or thwarted. Some creative processes feel lyrical and vibrant, richly alive, blessed with states of flow.  Everyone engaged in creativity will feel both these states, and everything in between. To get to moments of flow, many long treks full of unsure stumbling and unsuccessful first drafts will first be logged.

In art therapy, we utilize a framework called the Expressive Therapies Continuum, or the ETC, developed by art therapy pioneers Lusebrink and Kagin.  In this framework, creativity is at the top of the continuum, and involves the engagement of all the other layers of human expression, which are our kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, affective, cognitive, and symbolic ways of experience and engaging. When we are creative, we engage all these functions.




Symbols are object or images that substitute for something that is not itself present.  We create symbols to stand for things and codify collective meaning. Sometimes the symbol substitutes for another physical object. For instance, before my daughter left home for college, I bought us both silver rings on a Mother’s Day art fair outing. Five years later, I still wear my ring every day to feel connected for her. The symbolic ring substitutes for her. Sometimes symbols substitute for an abstract thing. For instance, a nation’s flag symbolizes patriotism, love of country. We have cultural symbols, behavioral symbols, religious symbols, personal symbols, mathematical symbols, language symbols. A stop sign is a symbol standing in for the behavior to stop. The number 2 is a symbol standing in for any group of two things. A drawing of two parallel lines with a bumpy oval shape on top is, in pictographic language, a symbol of a tree. Because we are able to think symbolically, we have created language, writing, and other vast systems of meaning.  When a symbol really means something to us, we connect to it with both heart and mind, like the ring I wear, or specific religious symbols for specific people. Meaning is always connected to symbols. We read symbols, interpret them. There is always a cognitive element to symbols, an encoding of meaning.  Symbols can forge rich personal and cultural belonging. They are essential in how we pass on cultural wisdom. But we may know what a cultural symbol means without experiencing an emotional response. Often, we defend ourselves from feeling by staying in symbolic interpretation and its structures of intellectual scaffolding. For instance, when asked to draw a tree, a person might quickly make the typical stick figure tree they learned as a child, a symbol of a tree, instead of drawing a tree with bare branches and hollow trunk that would potently express their feelings of grief. Our we might interpret elements of a dream symbolically, looking things up in dream dictionaries and compiling vast cultural data on what a bear, or chalice, or hollow tree has meant to people in other times and places, but never experience the anger of our specificdream bear, the thirst stirred by ourdream chalice, or the emptiness inside our hollow tree.



This Poet’s Most Cherished Words

Posted May 7, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

sacred words

From time to time I’ve contemplated what words are most essential to me. My list has grown slowly over time, through lived experience. The first word to become sacred to me was the word “we.” Culturally, we livin in a me-against-you time, and so the healing essence of the word we is even more needed. This year, the word “vessel” became part of my list, as the best word for the deep inner space where soul-life cooks. Here is a list of some of the words that capture the heart of living, forming connection, entering relationship with each other:






earth (earth)




















Yoga, Expressive Art Therapy, and Dreams

Posted March 9, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized


It’s been a wonderful year long journey!  I went to Costa Rica in March 2018 and completed training as a Let Your Yoga Dance Teacher.  In September, 2018 I began a 200 hour yoga teacher training program at my local yoga studio, Flourish Yoga + Wellbeing, in Fishers, Indiana.  On March 3, I graduated!!!!

I am already including yoga in my body movement group for eating disorder patients at Charis Center for Eating disorders.  And I am looking forward to starting to teach Let Your Yoga Dance at Flourish and to helping with their yoga nidra offerings.  My long term goals are to incorporate yoga and expressive art therapy into workshops and retreats.

While doing this yoga training, I have also been working with my dreams, with the help of a Natural Dreamwork practitioner. ( The combo of dreamwork and yoga is incredibly healing and transformative for me. As yoga helps me unravel and release old conditioned reactivity and blockage within my body, the dreams are helping me untangle the emotional and spiritual wounds within my soul.  I am now a practitioner in training in the Natural Dreamwork tradition. And so, though I graduated from the yoga teacher training, my spiritual learning journey is far from ending.

Before teaching my first yoga class, I dreamed that a group of humpback whales were arriving at the yoga studio and would fill the whole space.  At first I reacted – there will be no space for me!  Where will I teach yoga?!  Then I realized the whales are arriving for my yoga class!  So much living, ancient embodied energy, showing up in to be with me, to celebrate this journey and the new growth and vitality it is bringing me.

I look forward to many more postings here about my new yoga and dreamwork path and how they deepen and expand upon creative healing work with others.


Coming Home to Belonging: My Pilgrimage with Soul

Posted January 26, 2019 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized


I belong myself to that which I love. (Toko-Pa Turner)

In the past few years, my capacity to belong to self and World has been healing in ever-widening and deepening ways. I have been discovering how to “belong myself to life” as author Toko-Pa Turner writes. But more is happening than my own practicing of belonging. As I belong myself to life, world and Self are also belonging me to them.

The imagination that lives in the body and expresses itself through dreams and art-making is at the heart of this belonging, and is absolutely essential to soul-life. Much happened in my life to sever my connection from soul.  For most of us, the severing begins by just being born in this age of empty materialism and environmental destruction.  We are all wounded by this soul-deadening, imagination-impaired age.

I have been lucky and blessed to have found my vocation as art therapist at the beginning of my adult life and to have followed it for 30 years, through early novitiate stages, through challenging times of doubt, exhaustion, and disillusionment, and into years of deepened learning, increased mastery, and improved self-care. I have been rediscovering belonging every step of the way of those 30 years. And now, as I stand on the foundation of the mastery that I have painstakingly established, I am finding my capacity to belong is ripening, as is my courage to welcome and accept soul’s invitations for ever-evolving belong that arrive in dreams, sacred encounters, wild moments.

The threads of belonging radiate out from within the electric warmth of the body. The threads of belonging radiate out from the heart, from the flesh. They radiate out from every living presence in the natural world, the dream world, the universe.  I have lived too often feeling I am alone, all my threads of connectivity tamped down by hurt, pulled in by fear of further hurt.  In the past couple years, through an intensified engagement in art-based self-reflection and contemplation, I have seen the extreme severing of my connective threads. I have begun to unfurl them again.I have found the eternal vitality in these soul fibers. I have felt myself re-attaching to life, and life re-attaching with loving welcome to me.

The photo above is an overhead view of Vitality Vessel, a 24-inch tall vessel I created using torn, painted paper and torn strips of my unpublished memoir. The entire outside and inside of the vessel is lined with these strips. This vessel is the culminating art piece made during an 18-month period of self-reflection and inquiry into the roots and growth within personal compassion fatigue experiences. During this expressive artist pilgrimage, I wrote both a memoir and a weekly image journal, in which I logged reflections on my own art processes (visual art, poetry, dance, music) and also reflected on how I had been impacted by the week’s complex therapeutic interactions in the expressive art therapy groups/sessions I led. (I took a break from this blog during this time of contemplation, feeling that my pilgrimage needed to be personal and private in order to deeply ripen before I began sharing publicly about what it taught me.)

During this pilgrimage,  I also took retreats to natural settings, where I made art and hiked in the mountains of Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington and danced and did yoga in Costa Rica. I also interviewed other art therapists about their experiences of compassion, fatigue and vitality. Many of those I interviewed were fellow faculty at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.  We created art about our compassion fatigue/vitality experiences and displayed these works in the first faculty show of the Woods’ Art Therapy MA program.  Vitality Vessel is one of the pieces I contributed to this show.

During my expressive arts pilgrimage, I also looked for and found mentors and guides who could help me deepen into and find the soul-gifts within the journey. Most helpful to me were: depth psychologist Francis Weller, with whom I had monthly mentoring Skype session; art therapist wise elder Maxine Junge, with whom I also had monthly Skype mentoring sessions and who I visited at her home on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound; and Mary Jo Heyen, Natural Dreamwork practitioner with whom I consulted bi-weekly to tend dreams that came (and still come) nightly in abundance, offering healing encounters over and over again.

In the above image of the vessel, you are given a glimpse of the depths within which I searched as I wrote, painted, scribbled, danced, dreamed and journeyed through the profound soul-work passage that this expressive arts pilgrimage became for me.

I was gifted with generous funding for this pilgrimage by applying for and receiving the Creative Renewal Fellowship given to me and 29 other artists and art administrators in Central Indiana. I was the first art therapist to receive this fellowship, which was first offered in 1999. I was a fellow during the program’s 10th round from July 2017 – December 2018.  It took me many years, and many failed applications, to finally receive this generous award. Each application involved learning to validate myself as art therapist and artist, and though each failed application was incredibly painful, the learning and struggle involved to finally receive and embark on the fellowship was essential. I can now say I received the fellowship at just the right period of my life and that all the other attempts were part of what made me so ready, so prepared, to engage fully in the fellowship pilgrimage. In fact, I could say that the pilgrimage included all the years of those initial attempts.

What I experienced and all that unfolded during the fellowship is too complex to describe with any clarity in one blog post.  More posts will follow throughout the coming year going into each of the richly rewarding components of my journey.  Here I want to share that the essential healing theme woven through all aspects of my pilgrimage, which was that of returning home, of re-belonging to self and world. This belonging is experienced as threads of living energy, waking, unfurling, rejoining the vibrant web of life.  Vitality Vessel depicts those out-reaching, in-reaching pulsing fibers of connection. It is a self-portrait of my own healing. It is a portrait of what I call “godding” – another verb that speaks of belonging, as divine energy expressed in living, flowing, all-embracing longing, the soul’s eternal homing.

(Opening quote from: Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home,  Her Own Room Press: Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, 2017)

Healing Archetype Monotype

Posted April 30, 2016 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy


Prompt: While listening to music that evokes humanity’s shared experience of suffering, create a small pencil drawing of a figure symbolic of spiritual healing. Place this drawing under a Gelli Plate, and using printmaking inks create a monotype and ghost print. When dry, add paint, drawing, embellishments.

Clinical Experience: Psychological trauma experienced in childhood leaves spiritual wounds of shame, as if one were abandoned not only by human caregivers but also by God. My clients often feel nowhere is safe. Their imagination is especially feared, because it brings nightmares, and haunting images related to their abuse. Recently I worked with a client who said all she could see when starting to draw was an image of her heart infested with maggots. We listen to Goreki’s Third Symphony, and I led her through guided imagery in which the maggots became eaters of infection, cleaning her heart’s wounds. She then wanted to draw an image she called “a tree of life” with her heart at its center. She painted onto a Gelli plate colors radiating out from this tree-heart and described pressing the paper into the paint as “massaging her heart”. Lifting the print off the plate was like “peeling off old skin” and seeing “new life” beneath it.

Personal Experience: I often feel afraid and alone carrying the stories of personal and cultural trauma my clients share with me. I drew this figure while listening to Kronos Quartet’s Night Prayers. I then used a three-color reduction technique, printing layers of yellow, red, and blue process inks to build up the image. The unpredictable process of printing layers of color and watching the image emerge felt as if the image was dreaming itself into being from the collective unconscious. The darkness surrounding this angel is rich with grief. The glowing spiral in her core evokes both existential chaos and the creation of the universe. She is weeping, singing, praying for us all, shielding us with her wings. I feel she has been standing guard since the dawn of human life. Creating her helped me remember that, while trauma is always in our world, compassion is also present in equal abundance.

Mini Red Books – An Amazing Dream-Tending Art Process

Posted March 13, 2016 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: art therapy, dreams, red book

Three Mini Red Books

Three Mini Red Books by Liza

I dream of two Irish passports that are filled with poems, drawings, photos, inspiring quotes, maps, and myths. And so in my art therapy studio, I collage together little passports. My journey through old magazines, recycled paper, and tattered maps leads to one synchronistic discovery after another: standing stones, ancient burial mounds, maps for places I was lost and found my way in, poems for places that loved me, messages for where I am going. I am surprised by how creatively renewed I feel and decide to make passports exploring other dreams.

Next I have a dream in which I am standing at the intersection of two dirt roads. A man from Columbia, dressed in indigenous hat and tunic, is standing in this intersection, holding a 4-necked guitar. He says he is the guardian of the crossroads between life and death, to which I have been walking since my mother’s death, aching to know what has become of her, what will become of me. The crossroad guardian will not let me continue on. “You are not yet ready to visit the land of the dead,” he cautions.

I make a dream passport for the crossroad guardian, drawing him and his unreal guitar. I google “crossroad guardian myths” and find Hermes and his lyre, and Papa Legba from Haitian Vodou. I open a National Geographic by chance to an article about the Kogi people of Columbia who see themselves as the guardians of the Earth. There is a photo of a Kogi man dressed in the very garb my dream figure wore, and carrying around his neck a lyre-shaped medicine pouch. The audiobook I am listening to on my drive to the studio talks about St. Columba, 6th century Celtic missionary. I fill my dream passport with images of Celtic crosses, crossroad mandalas, lyres, myths, and a handwritten request for guidance through mid-life’s letting go, and for the muse’s gift of duendé for my art and poetry. I give the little book a red cover, and realize I have made a small version of Carl Jung’s Red Book, his magnum opus of active imagination and dream-tending.


God is in the Wound Book

Inside pages of “God is in the Wound” Book

Then I have an image-less dream offering only these words: The wound is already there before the injury. The healing is there before the wound. The healing creates the wound, which desires the injury, so that we can learn to participate with the healing. I wake up feeling C. G. Jung is speaking to me, joining the dream-book conversation. Googling “Jung wound quote” confirms this hunch by leading me to a simple statement from Jung: “God enters through the wound.” I make a little red book illustrating the dream message with oil pastel resist watercolor on black paper, each page a dark blooming.

Then I dream of a hermaphrodite who is doing yoga. My internet searches to learn about the hermaphrodite in myth, spirituality, Jungian psychology lead to Shakti and Shiva, Hermes and Aphrodite, the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine in early Christianity, the Buddhist bodhisattva archetypal figures of compassion that are both male and female like Avalokitesvara with 1,000 arms. I fill my book with stories of this sacred marriage, images of lingam and yoni, phallus and vagina.

And now, after a dream in which a bear comes asking for therapy, I have spent the winter in creative hibernation making a bear dream passport, painting images of the Great Bear Mother, god-symbol since the age of Neanderthals, who has come to ask we give therapy to raped and pillaged wild Earth.


Inside pages of Great Mother Bear Book

Inside pages of Great Mother Bear book

The energy that comes as I make each “Red Book” Dream Passport is potent and enlivening. I feel connected to my personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious of humanity, nature, and world soul. I am in awe. Things I do not know are known by my dreams. The creative process leads me to this collective knowing with surprising grace, serendipity, and generosity. Images and stories come from the collage box and the Internet in response to each dream without me sweating, struggling, or feeling alone. It is as if everything is one organic mind and making these little books enters me into dialogue with Self. What began for me as a simple collage process has become a recurring confirmation that the territory of the soul is both infinite and somehow accessible, at every point, by imagination.


How to Make Your Own Dream Passport “Red” Book


  1. Pay attention to your dreams and practice remembering them. Keeping a notebook at your bedside and writing your dreams down each morning will help deepen your connection to them.
  1. Choose a dream that is vivid, mysterious, challenging, or inviting, perhaps one with an animal, a place that seems unfamiliar of symbolic, or a specific message. Write this dream into a creative narrative or poem, typed so that you can include it within your book.
  1. Use the Internet to explore the mythic, spiritual, and collective layers of the dream. For example, if you have a dream about a turtle, search “turtle mythology” to see the multicultural stories associated with this animal.
  1. Print text and images from Internet searches that reveal interesting details.
  1. Using these print-outs, and a variety of other collage and art materials, fill the pages of a blank book (pre-made, or hand-made if you prefer) with creative responses, text, and stories that help amplify the expanding territory into which your dream-tending takes you.
  1. Take your time. This journey with your dream may provide you weeks, or even months of exploration.
  1. If you find this process as awe invoking as I do, looking through Jung’s Red Book will also inspire you. Your public library and/or art therapists in your area will have a copy.

Pilgrimage: Tracing Path of Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehan – Part One

Posted November 15, 2015 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized

1890's window in St. Peter's Church, Montgomery Indiana

1890’s window in St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery Indiana

With funding from an Individual Artist Project Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, since July, I have been traveling the path of the Indiana’s Wabash and Erie Canal, tracing the history of my great great grandparent’s Daniel Heffernan and Catherine Meehen, who immigrated, separately, from Ireland in the 1830’s. My long term goal for this research is to complete a book of poetry about the canal era from the perspectives of my ancestors. During the early decades of Indiana’s statehood, before the railroads, water travel was the easiest way to traverse the wild frontier and canal-building was an essential part of the young state’s efforts for internal improvement to increase commerce, trade, and settlement.  Irish immigrants did much of the work building the canal and my ancestors were among them.

The canal was built in installments, and I have spent the second half of 2015 traveling it in installments. When completed, the canal went from Toledo to Evansville and was over 468 miles long. Originally, I thought that 4 long weekend trips would be sufficient for me to travel the state, making an initial tracing through the territory of the entire path of the canal. As I got into my research, I soon learned I needed to spend longer at this task than originally imagined. At this point, I have visited the areas specifically connected to the story of Daniel and Catherine.

I began in Fort Wayne, where the building of the Wabash and Erie began. In July, August, and September, I traveled through small towns and larger cities, from Fort Wayne, Huntington, Peru, Logansport, Delphi, through Lafayette, and on to Covington.  In October, I began exploring the areas in southern Indiana where my great-great grandparents lived and worked after meeting and marrying in Lafayette.  This post will briefly describe some of what I found on this most recent trip. Other posts will describe my journeys on the northern segments of the canal.

On a beautiful, sunny October weekend day, I drove with my partner Gary to Petersburg, Indiana.  In order to pack as much research into the time we had, we took the most direct route, which included driving on newly built sections of I-69, an interstate project which was protested against by those concerned about its environmental impact, including myself. As we drove on this newly built road, I thought about my ancestors work on the canal, which was the first “interstate” to be built through Indiana’s wilderness and was itself an expensive feat of complex engineering whose usefulness was questioned and debated even as it was being built. I imagined Daniel and Catherine in the car with us, speeding down this newly built expanse of concrete and considering the forested areas through which the highway is yet to be constructed.  They would be amazed by how fast we were traveling compared to the 4 miles per hour pace of the canal boats. They would also be amazed by the many large, costly, and crisscrossing miles of roads that exist in the state. They would wonder aloud about how the internal improvements which they helped start in the state are still going on, with continued disagreement and questionable expense as their era. We would agree, that though much has changed between the 19th and 21st centuries, much is still very much the same.

In Petersburg, we found our way to the Gil Hodges bridge over the east fork of the White River, where parallel to this road bridge runs a train trestle built in the same place as the old aqueduct bridge for the canal.  According to the family story passed on through generations, my great-great grandfather was a subcontractor involved in building bridges for the canal and this aqueduct bridge was one of them.

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

train trestle bridge over east fork of White River, Petersburg, Indiana

The family story also says that Daniel carved his initials on this bridge. All that remains of the work he helped oversee are the stones of the southern abutment of the bridge. These are still being used as the support for the train trestle.  There are stone mason carver’s marks in many of these limestone blocks.  We climbed down under the bridge and explored these stones, not expecting to find the letter’s DH cut into the stone, but wishing they were there offering us some tangible remains of his existence. In the canal era days, the aqueduct would have been a wooden covered bridge spanning the river. Some of the wood used for this bridge has been turned into paneling placed on the walls of the genealogy area of the public library in Petersburg. We found the library and touched this wood. Of course, whatever section of wood Daniel carved his initials into has been long gone for decades.

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

view of the canal era stone, southern abutment, Petersburg bridge

In order to connect the family anecdotes about Daniel and Catherine’s lives to the history of the canal’s construction, I have relied, with much gratitude, on the hard work of historians such as Bob and Carolyn Schmitt of the Canal Society of Indiana, Allen County historian and author of three books about the canal Tom Castaldi, and Dan McCain, director of the W &E Canal Center in Delphi. For this trip, I depended upon materials published by the Canal Society of Indiana for a tour of Gibson, Pike, Davies, Green Counties in March, 1998. In this tourbook, I found a story of a man named A.J. Hart who, in 1849, was superintendent in charge of about 1oo men working on the canal and then in 1851, came to Davies County with 16 men to work on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. I think Daniel Heffernan  must have been one of those 16 men, and he and A.J. knew each other from working together on the canal because according to my family story, after completing the Petersburg bridge, my grandfather next worked on the construction of the Ohio and Mississipi Railroad between Montgomery and Cannelburg, IN before buying land in Montgomery.  After leaving Petersburg, we went to Montgomery to find this section of railroad and the land where my great great grandparents farmed and raised a large family.

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan's farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

A portion of the 80 acres where the Heffernan’s farmed and built a two room cabin with loft and back porch

At the train tracks, we imagined Daniel riding the train as one of its first passengers as the family story says. At the farmsite, we talked about how pleasing it was to find it still existing as a farm.  Having witnessed suburban sprawl devouring many farms to build shopping malls and housing developments, it felt to me surprising and comforting to stand at the roadside watching someone in a distant field bringing in the corn harvest and imagining what this farmland was like when my ancestors first began to clear and work it.

We drove from the farm into the town of Montgomery, imagining ourselves in a horse drawn wagon on a Sunday morning, bringing our large brood of children into town for church at St. Peter’s Catholic church.  When my ancestor’s bought their land in Montgomery in the early 1850’s plans for a larger church were in the works and construction on this new church was completed in 1869. According to the history of  St. Peter’s on the church’s website, a great deal of the work on the new brick church was done by parishioners. I have no doubt that my hardworking ancestors contributed to its building.

I felt a strange current running up my spine as I stood on the front steps of the church and looked down the hill, able to see the land my ancestors farmed on the near horizon, knowing I was standing on a vantage point looking out at their world in much the same way that my great-great grandparents did 150 years ago. I imagined their pride in helping to build this church and in owning and farming a large tract of rich,fertile land. I imagined how it must have felt to have left Ireland when young, to have spent 15 or so years moving from place to place in order to find work as pioneers in a wild land, and then to at last settle onto land they had worked hard to own, and continued to work hard to farm. I could feel how important this church was to them, how rooted it helped them feel.

St. Peter's Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Montgomery, IN

I entered the old church feeling as if I was stepping through a doorway in time. The beautiful interior drew us in.  We were struck immediately by the stained glass windows aglow with the autumn sunlight.  These Italian stained glass windows were added to the church in the 1890’s, during the last decade and half of my great great grandparent’s lives life. We saw that each window bore the name of a family that helped purchase these windows. “What are the chances,” I said to Gary, “that one of them was contributed by the Heffernan’s?” We each took a side of the church and began looking. Almost immediately, Gary called out, “Here it is!” Knowing Gary’s sense of humor, I expected he was joking, but turned to look. He pointed out the window of St. Patrick and sure enough, at the bottom of the window were the words, “Gift of Daniel Sr. and Jr. and Catherine Heffernan.”

This window was not mentioned at all in the family narrative. Finding it was an unexpected delight, and more than made up for the loss of Daniel’s initials on the Petersburg bridge. I stood in front of the window imagining my great great grandparents as old ones in the last years of their lives, sitting in a pew at this church, near the glowing light of the St. Patrick’s window, contemplating their journey from Ireland to these final years of long and fruitful life.

St. Patrick window, St. Peter's Church, Montgomery IN

St. Patrick window, St. Peter’s Church, Montgomery IN

Our last stop was the St. Peter’s Cemetery. There we found the grave stones of children born to Daniel and Catherine who died young. We also found the gravestone of Daniel’s brother Michael and Daniel’s neighbor and drinking buddy Peter Griffin, also an immigrant from Ireland. Finally, we found the large granite headstone for Daniel and Catherine, located in the center of the old section of the cemetery, not far from the stone of the priest who served their church during my great-great grandparent’s lifetime.

Gravestone in St. Peter's Cemetery

Gravestone in St. Peter’s Cemetery

I sat on the grass next to this stone and felt an unexpected peace and connection. So much of the canal that was a central focus of the first half of my grandparent’s adult lives has fallen to ruin and been lost to time. I had not expected to find in southern Indiana so much lasting evidence of my ancestors, or such confirmation that they had been well loved, life-giving citizens to their community. I knew now more than ever how connected they were to this land, as pioneers in the state’s early settlement, as hard working immigrants, as parents to a large family, and as respected members of their church and small town community. Somehow finding such lasting evidence of their presence in this world makes my own life feel more rooted, more meaningful.

Compassion Initiation: Reorienting Self-Care toward Stewardship of Spiritual Maturation of Art Therapists

Posted September 6, 2015 by Liza Hyatt
Categories: Uncategorized


This is the rough draft of an article I am working on.  Eventually I will seek to publish it outside my blog, but in the mean time, because the experience of compassion fatigue is so prevalent in the lives of therapy and health care workers, it feels important to me that I make this work available to the public even as I continue to develop my thoughts and research.

A Necessary Shift in Perception

I have been an art therapist for 25 years and an initiate into the dual callings of artist-healer all my life. I spent childhood painting, writing, dancing, and singing as rheumatoid arthritis flared, faded, and flared again in my body. The first three letters of arthritis are a-r-t, so I decided art was the blessing in the disease. In another culture, elders might have recognized the illness initiating me into my adult role as healer. Instead, I have navigated my art therapy vocation despite internal confusion and resistance and with contradictory encouragement and discouragement from family and friends.

After 13 years in the field, I experienced what is commonly called compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress, with its cluster of struggles about personal psychological issues; changing beliefs; the demands of the therapeutic relationship; work institutions and environments; social systems and power issues; and physical health (Stamm, 1999). During my descent into these struggles, I schemed for ways to divorce the two components of my work, to be artist but no longer therapist, thinking that the therapist role caused my exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Instead, external circumstances (the need to pay bills) and internal forces (the need to be whole) never allowed me to divorce from the therapist part of myself. My recovery instead required that I recommit to being a therapist and engage with this work more wholeheartedly.

From the get-go, I struggled with the words used to name this experience: burnout, vicarious traumatization (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995), secondary traumatic stress (Stamm, 1999), trauma exposure response (Lipsky & Burke, 2009), and compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995). I preferred “compassion fatigue.” I liked that the root meaning of the word compassion is “suffering with.” But the term “compassion fatigue” still felt inadequate. “Fatigue” implies overuse, as if compassion is a thing that becomes injured from repetitive work, like a muscle, or mechanical object. But in that case, recovery and healing of compassion would require using that “muscle” less. However, trying to be less compassionate proved to be both impossible and not at all healing.

In fact, being more compassionate, less defended, less separate was the curative response for my fatigue. I needed to learn more fully how and why I was “suffering with” my therapy clients, my family, and the world. I needed to let go of desire to separate or protect the artist self from the therapist self. I needed to let go of concepts of self as solitary or fixed, and more fully inhabit the shared suffering, both human and environmental, that is our common home.   I needed a deeper relationship with compassion, and this relationship required an ego-stripping reorganization of my life. I needed to identify and address internal and external problems that created, and were caused by, a deprivation of compassion. When I understood this requirement, I had to trust that – despite wanting to fend off or avoid such upheaval – my “compassion fatigue” experience was actually creative, generative, soul-driven, and much more than a pathologic reaction to working and caring too much.

Until I began to recognize these needs, like most people from a modern, secular background, I used the word “compassion” without knowing its meaning, or what, being compassionate involves.   I can now no longer think of compassion as an objectified character trait and have come to understand it as powerful archetypal energy requiring a series of upheavals and transformations that will birth wholeness of Self, shattering the defenses of ego.

When we speak of “compassion fatigue,” these upheavals are what we are trying to name. But, while fatigue is part of rupture and transformation, it is only a fraction of the whole experience. Using the term “fatigue” to describe an individual’s suffering in response to collective suffering is like mentioning only “difficulty sleeping” when we are falling in love. In place of “compassion fatigue,” a far better name for these upheavals is initiation.

The psyche requires initiation of us several times in our lives. Through the process of initiation, we let go of no-longer useful, increasingly false definitions of self, experience ego-death, and then return, rebuilding our selves in more mature, authentic, and compassionate ways in order to be more fully part of community (Moore, 2001; Turner, 1969; Van Gennep, 1960; Eliade, 1958; Levine, 1992). Much focus has been given to the study of initiation and rites-of-passage in non-Western cultures. Psychotherapy is often described as a process of initiation for the client (Corbett, 2011). When I realized that my compassion fatigue was more fully understood as a process of initiation resulting from ongoing engagement with the archetype of compassion, I was surprised to find very little written about the work of psychotherapy as an initiatory catalyst for the therapist. I think this lack is in part due to cultural misperception of compassion as a character trait we already possess before becoming therapists. Like most neophyte therapists, I entered this field believing just that.

After seeing compassion as archetypal energy demanding ongoing initiation, my perception and work has shifted radically. This realization humbled me to the truth that I do not possess compassion. Compassion possesses me.   When I assume compassion belongs to me, as simply part of my character, I run into trouble. I take both self and compassion for granted, and act with only a superficial understanding of compassion’s energy. But when I am aware that, in seeking to develop compassion, I have entered into sacred terrain and am engaging with a divine force whose energy is much bigger than my ordinary human self, I behave with mindfulness, awe, and deep respect for the divine energy that is taking possession of me.

This radical shift in thinking recognizes that self, soul, and compassion are not things, or objects. They are processes, actions. They are, as Matthew Fox (2014) writes, in his exploration of 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart, “spaces where God works compassion and where the love of God is active” and where we experience “the radical level of interdependence that is the basis of all compassion and indeed of our whole existence” (p. 122). In other words, we do not have a soul, a self, or compassion as a personality feature. Instead, soul, self, and compassion are inter-related active processes initiated through our engagement with the active process that is the soul, self and compassion of the Divine. “Until we become a conduit for the Divine compassion,” Fox continues, “we do not yet have soul. Soul is something we birth, and we birth it in proportion to our developing love and compassion” (p. 123).

Reorienting the Work of Art Therapists

Within the therapy community, reflection on personal experiences of compassion initiation serve to help others in the community recognize and navigate the upheavals required by the archetype of compassion for our maturation. Perceiving compassion as archetypal energy demanding maturation has given me a deeper appreciation of “the Self-changing nature of care-giving work” that repeatedly exposes the therapist to human suffering and requires reorientation of the self in response to such suffering (Stamm, 1999, p. xxxviii). Reorientation and reorganization of self toward greater spiritual maturity and selfhood is a key component of the initiatory process.

I believe, as does secondary traumatic stress researcher Stamm (1999), that “the greater the demand and/or the fewer the resources the person has with which to make the change, the greater the potential for the stress to be traumatic or even pathological” (p. xxxviii). Within our work environments, deep understanding of the nature of both therapeutic work and trauma is often insufficient and so resources fostering self-care are lacking. When work environments hinder self-care needs, or the therapist does not make conscientious efforts to prioritize self-care, these lapses occur as a result of broad cultural misunderstanding of what trauma is and how compassion is developed, nurtured, and engaged with in assistance of others. In the West, our individualistic, competitive culture does not fully recognize that community is essential for healing.

Laura van Dermoot Lipsky (2009) writes about the need for “trauma stewardship,” through which individuals and communities of trauma workers engage in daily practices to develop “a deep sense of awareness needed to care for ourselves while caring for others and the world around us” (p. 12). Her work on trauma stewardship provides readers a thorough description of the effects of working to respond to trauma and a compass reorienting individuals and organizations toward more mindful self-care.   However, while her writing is an extremely valuable framework, it does not address compassion development. Including a deeper understanding of compassion initiation with the framework of trauma stewardship will help us understand why our initiations into mature compassion are often fraught with the crises and psychopathologic reactions that we associate with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. We can then acknowledge that these crises and injuries occur, in large part, because, culturally, there is not adequate, supportive, sacred space within which the called-for initiation can occur.

In addition, the path toward mature compassion requires not one initiation, but a series of initiations. “There is no such thing as being finished with your initiations,” states Jungian analyst Robert L. Moore (2001). “Once you get through the initiation you are in now, and get your reconstitution, and you get to this next plateau in your life, then the next one comes along” (p. 117). Compassion initiations happen concurrently with other life-stage transitions. We are students, begin our careers, practice and grow more seasoned, and respond to the world’s suffering as we also marry, become pregnant, adjust to being new parents, enter midlife, divorce, experience our children leaving home, become elders, and grieve for lost loved ones. Our compassion initiations as therapists happen within the complex stages of our personal initiations.

Beyond the layer of personal maturation, human initiations also happen in the midst of, and in large part, because of, the collective trauma that is felt by all within one’s culture, inherited with generations of wounding, affecting the culture as whole (Burstow, 2003; Watkins, Shulman, 2008). Initiation and collective trauma are deeply interconnected. In modern Western society, collective trauma is in part perpetrated because the culture rejects the psyche and instead subjugates psyche into servitude for the industrial state. Every effort to complete the necessary developmental stages of soul-growth requires simultaneous efforts to heal the collective trauma within which our lives take place. Initiation, by its very nature as one of the primary forces of the psyche, breaks us free from this servitude and asks us to know ourselves as beings more soulful, strongly interconnected, and alive than the tamed or narcissistic visions of self that are offered by the dominant over-culture. Through initiation, we shed layers of false-self created to survive within the collective trauma – and we are reborn as more whole, authentic selves who respond, compassionately and maturely, to heal others who are wounded within our community.

Eco-therapist, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin (2008) describes how initiation serves to shift adults within Western culture away from “egocentric” worldviews and into “soulcentric” and “ecocentric” worldviews. Initiations that are approached from soulcentric awareness are, according to Plotkin,

designed to assist all members in discovering and living from their deepest and most fulfilling potentials (their individual souls), in this way contributing their most life-nourishing gifts to their community and environment and, in doing so, actualizing the culture’s potential (the cultural soul) and supporting its ongoing evolution. (p. 45)

By acknowledging the initiations at the heart of compassion fatigue, we recognize that within suffering, soulcentric processes of individual and cultural maturation are at work.

In addition to these layers of initiation, an art therapist’s complex initiatory process includes growth into dual vocations as artist and healer. An art therapist’s vocation is most authentically lived from within the center of four polarities on intersecting continuums. At the extremities, we over-identify or under-identify with our roles. We over-identify as healers when we call ourselves shamans. We over-identify as artists when we imagine ourselves Orpheus, insisting that artists are uniquely gifted for deep soul journeys. We under-identify as healers when we act like charlatans with only tricks and techniques to offer, or feel helpless to respond effectively to the world’s huge suffering. We under-identify as artists when we relegate our personal creativity to a hobby that is less valuable, or less necessary than others, failing to make time for our own art, considering commercial sales and gallery shows as the only proof of artistic success, not participating with our local art community and other artists, or not turning to art for self-care. Our work institutions and communities push us toward these poles. For example, in some places art therapy is seen as something anyone who knows how to use a pair of scissors and glue can do. While at the other extreme, art therapists are given the most challenging, traumatized cases because the rest of the treatment team wants the art to help break through a client’s defenses.

Each pole is part of who we are and how our work manifests. As healers, we are indeed called to do what shamans do, and we are in many ways helpless in the face of world suffering. Art does pull us into deep, healing, soul journeys. And sometimes being an artist increases our pain, and demands more time than we can give. It also requires endurance of long fallow periods in which creativity is barren. Balance is reached in the middle between the extremes.

Without this middle ground, we become inauthentic, ungrounded, inflated or deflated. Our experiences of compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary trauma are in part triggered by personal and institutional undervaluing of what art therapy can offer while also demanding more than is realistic, causing us to feel trapped, unable to resolve the internal conflict of this imbalance. To become balanced, we need to develop mature identities as both artist and healers. In other words, our dual roles as artists and healers require initiation so that we live and work authentically, maturely, and compassionately.

In all these ways, the compassion initiation experience is actually a complex web of initiations that are concurrent and interconnected, permeating every step of our development as art therapists. We traverse personal life-stage initiations while responding to collective trauma and maturing vocationally, as both healers and artists.

A Process for Sharing Compassion Initiation Stories

Art therapists need to tell stories of how we wandered, without a map, into and through the liminal and complex terrains of our initiatory journeys. I have begun inviting colleagues to share with me their stories of compassion initiation. And, as an instructor of graduate level art therapy classes and supervisor of art therapy interns, I warn students that our education and work environments exist within a culture that is mostly ignorant of what compassion and initiation truly are. I work to prepare student therapists for the realities of working long-term within the web of collective trauma, personal maturation, and vocational identity growth, with little training in the spiritual practices of compassion.

According to the Dalai Lama (2002), if a person is:

…at an early stage of compassion practice, a more complex environment will be much more challenging, and the person will be less able to deal with it compassionately. At this initial stage, before you have reached a stage of stability, it is much more effective to avoid the situation rather than trying to confront and deal with it. Until you get to the point where it is stabilized, you are much more vulnerable to external conditions. Given this idea, according to Buddhist thinking, if a person who has attained stability in his or her compassion training continues to stay in seclusion, that person is not really doing anything with compassion. That person should now be out, running around like a mad dog, actively engaged in acts of compassion. (p. 91)

An opposite approach is used when it comes to training therapists. In spiritually impoverished, highly stressed modern culture, students do not spend years in seclusion, training in compassion toward self and others before engaging with the world. Instead, after a brief period of protected observation and internship, graduates are sent immediately into complex environments to “run around like mad dogs” engaged in compassionate work with cultural trauma. They are advised to avoid compassion fatigue, by developing adequate self-care, personal creativity, meditation, and mindfulness practices. They will need to learn these spiritual practices on the fly, however. In class, we could only spent minimal time cultivating them.

I tell my students that instability of self and career will occur in response to working to heal our complex, violent, competitive culture. I acknowledge the inadequacy of our spiritual training in compassion. Hoping to better prepare art therapy students to respond to the initiatory responses they will have, I engage my students in an adaptation of Stephen K. Levine’s (1992) “Bearing Gifts to the Feast” student initiation process. In his work, Levine teaches his students about the initiation process in rite-of-passage ceremonies, and facilitates their journey through the stages of preparation, liminal transition, and return, as they create and provide an art-based presentation to the class that makes present “the pain and suffering in their lives” and the “pathos” of their soul. In response to each presentation, the feedback classmates give must “be in an expressive mode, i.e., it must use an artistic or expressive medium” (p. 44, 45).

In my classes, I ask students to contemplate the suffering they experience as they engage in their internship field experiences and to then connect this collective trauma to their own personal pain and life struggles.   I ask each student to, as artist, “sit right in the middle of the karmic struggle, all the sufferers of all times and places hanging on his brush – and then with full awareness to pick up that brush” because “the least mark on the paper” will be “an act of supreme courage in which the suffering of the artist and his world are alchemized” as Stephen Nachmanovitch says (1990, p. 197). Nachmanovitch also points out, paradoxically, the more fully we come to know and be ourselves, including our suffering, “the more universal” our message. As we “develop and individuate more deeply,” we “break through into deeper layers of the collective consciousness and the collective unconsciousness” (p. 179). By accepting and sharing, publicly, the wounds we have rejected and hidden, we become more fully human, and our specific stories are more clearly seen as part of the existential suffering experienced by all.

I also ask my students to dialogue about psychotherapy as a spiritual practice, as a “sacred cauldron”, as Lionel Corbett (2011) describes it, in which both therapist and client are transformed. Regarding the importance of suffering in our client’s lives, Corbett states the following:

We need a perspective that is both large enough to help individuals and also able to guide our cultural response to suffering. It would be helpful to think of suffering as an essential life transition with important psychological effects and developmental consequences. We can view suffering as an initiation into a new level of awareness and a new state of being. The most difficult part of this process involves a temporary stage known to anthropologists as liminality, which is a characteristic of the middle stage of rights-of-passage seen within tribal cultures. In the liminal stage, the initiate or the suffering person is not completely out of the old state…and not quite into the new. He or she is betwixt and between, in a situation of radical change, so that liminal states produce uncertainty and anxiety about the future.   During this period, we lose our sense of who we are but have no idea where we are heading. This stage involves ambiguity and confusion. (p. 290)

In class we talk about this passage from Corbett and the importance of seeing our clients as initiates, and then we talk about seeing our own suffering, as we engage with the archetype of compassion, through a similar understanding of initiation.

Also included in the course is Toward Psychologies of Liberation, by depth psychologists Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman (2008), who thoroughly articulate the dissociation that is felt by all members of traumatized communities and recognize that such dissociation serves “the function of expressing deep distress.” Watkins and Shulman state:

In cultural environments where such distress can be heard and witnessed,   healers may interpret symptoms as calls to put something right in the environment. The whole community may come together to dialogue about and heal the breach. But where such symptoms cannot be heard and interpreted, there may be a descent into a chronic state of psychological  dissociation and the lonely suffering of symptoms that compromise vitality, creativity, eros, and compassion.” (p. 75)

The class is a bringing together of community “to dialogue and heal the breach.” We acknowledge how failure to see our compassion fatigue as a call “to put something right” through initiation prevents us from hearing, interpreting, and witnessing and therefore increases feelings of dissociation, loneliness, and loss of vitality and compassion.

Finally, students use personal image journaling and in-class art reflections throughout the semester. These art reflections track the student’s experiences of Self-change and reorientation in response to suffering. Students shape these art meditations into a final presentation, which is shared and responded to in the last weeks of the semester.

Each year, I continue to refine and deepen the structure of my course to make this initiation process the heart of the class so that students work deeply with their initiation experiences. In addition, I present to the class my own compassion initiation story, describing my own past and current struggles.

Teaching Vulnerability

What I share in my presentation changes as I change. This year, I will show them a new art piece I will make in response to empty nesting grief as my daughter begins college. I will pair it with a monotype of a weeping pregnant woman beside a river of blood, made when I was a new mother and worked at a women’s counseling center/domestic violence shelter (above). I will share the mosaic self-portrait pieced together during the years after I left both my work at the women’s center and my marriage. I will also share a more recent body tracing self-portrait made after my mother’s death, using art materials that belonged to her.  I will talk about how each of these art pieces reveals my own struggles with the experience of being undernourished; I will describe how this theme is encountered daily in my work at an eating disorder treatment center.


My goal in sharing my own story and art, and in engaging students in their own rite-of-passage presentation, is to model how we might witness for each other the initiations we must navigate as we are matured by the archetype of compassion. As artist-healers, we must ask of ourselves what we ask of clients – that we go deeply into our pain and express it through art making. And we must do this repeatedly. With no fixed balance ever attained, we need to make time and energy available for this personal attention in the midst of other obligations, and despite time constraints and community fragmentation within which we live and work.

To be honest, I struggle while sharing suffering and therapeutic artwork with students. In doing so, I reveal the messes of my life, the self-injury I’ve caused myself, the ego-defenses I armor myself with, the foolish risks I take in search of love, the times of wandering and confusion I struggle through. I fear I will look crazy, too openly vulnerable, too revealing of self and therefore entirely unprofessional as teacher and therapist. But I also know that I cannot ask students to be this vulnerable but shield myself behind false, invulnerable authority. In his book, The Archetype of Initiation, Robert L. Moore (2001) states:

When people act “crazy” by conventional standards, they are often searching  for some kind of extraordinary space that will allow them to leave an old phase of life behind and experience initiation into an entirely new phase.   Age-old human  existential issues bring with them a yearning to locate and enter a sacred “temple” where the issues can be addressed, where a constructive reorientation can safely occur, and where the behavior of self and others can once again begin to reintegrate and make sense. (p. 20)

Therefore, I choose to share my compassion initiation stories, my suffering, and my art responses to it, with students, and even at professional art therapy conferences, in front of peers whose work I highly respect. Being “crazy” enough to be this radically vulnerable is essential and serves a two-fold purpose. In addition to the primary purpose of showing, through personal example, the process of compassion initiation as it occurs within one artist-healer’s career, my vulnerability helps us enter sacred space within our therapy communities.


We need to create and protect such opportunities for each other. It is only by being vulnerable that we provide the therapy community a “sacred temple”, where each of us can be held and witnessed as we reveal our suffering, our fatigue, our reactions to trauma. By doing so together, the profession as a whole can be initiated into new spiritual maturity, through which old, inadequate perceptions of compassion will dissolve. Through this, we can make sense of our suffering as therapists, and reorient our work in new depths.   By providing such extraordinary space for witness, we take our turns as elders helping guide colleagues through the complex and ongoing process of compassion initiation. We will continue to learn how profoundly our work, our relationships, our culture, our world will be changed as we more fully respect, value, and engage with compassion as an archetypal, and therefore spiritual force whose energy is much bigger than any of us imagine.


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Corbett, L. (2011). The Sacred cauldron: Psychotherapy as a spiritual practice.             Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.

Dalai Lama, in Davidson, R. and Harrington, A, ed. (2002). Visions of compassion:             western scientists and tibetan buddhists examine human nature. New York:             Oxford University Press.

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Pearlman, L.A & Saakvitne, K.W. (1995) Trauma and the therapist: Countertransference and vicarious traumatization in psychotherapy with incest survivors. New York: W.W. Norton.

Plotkin, B. (2008). Nature and the human soul: Cultivating wholeness and community in a fragmented world. Novanto, California: New World Library.

Stamm, B.H., ed. (1999). Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians,  researchers, and educators, 2nd edition. Lutherville, MD: Sidran Press.

Turner, V. W. (1969) The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithica: Cornell  University Press.

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