I have been lucky enough to be on retreat this past week. Thanks to the Alpine Motel in Arthurs Pass, New Zealand, who offer a week’s free accommodation to one artist each year, I have been able to send a week up in the mountains. It has been a wonderful chance to reset my nervous system to ‘chill out, find inspiration and create’. In this video I am reflecting on the importance of nourishing our nervous systems so that we can be both creative and resilient in our lives.
One way of seeing creativity is that it’s the ability to move beyond our comfort zone to discover what is new and being called into being. If we are lucky and feeling brave enough and emotionally-resourced enough, creativity is a choice we can make in our lives. It’s an intention to do something in a different way - to try something new - to push the boundaries beyond what is our current ‘normal’. Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes and in various contexts: we can be creative in our parenting, in our professional lives, as artists, or even in how we relate to ourselves.
Resilience is also about adapting to a new situation by moving beyond our current window of tolerance. Both creativity and resilience invite us to step outside our normal. In creativity this is a choice. But resilience often comes about as a result of some change caused by external circumstances outside of our control, something we have to respond to rather than a choice we have made. For example - resilience can be caused by the upheaval and even trauma of a job loss, an accident, a global pandemic or even just something like an unexpectedly steep hill.
In either creativity or resilience, our comfort zones are challenged and expand to meet the challenge. But to be willing to step outside our comfort zone, it’s important to have a good strong base to start from. So the work (and play) that we do to nourish our nervous system is very important in our lives. This is what builds safety and flexibility in our comfort zones and develops the capacity for us to expand our windows of tolerance.
So - what do you need to nourish your nervous system? Is it time in the mountains? Is it good food? A bike ride? Going to bed early a few nights a week? What works for you to have fuel in the tank for those challenging times in our lives?
This lovely drawing was created by one of the participants on the Lockdown version of the Feathers Project. She chose a teacup to be her metaphor for increasing wellbeing and reducing stress during COVID, and she used this image in place of a feather in her art project. I encourage people to find their own imagery and I've been so delighted by the variety that people have come up with. Check out the gallery of photos here.
Anyhow, I was drawn back to this image today. I think the words my friend wrote are just so spot on... "A cuppa tea puts the worlds to right".
Some may disagree. Some may think activism and progressive politics put the worlds to right. And they would be right there too. But to find creative solutions to any challenges (however large or small), we need to be in a fairly-well resourced place. (I'm talking about emotional resources here not financial). And that's where the cup of tea comes in.
The 'cuppa tea' stands for whatever we do to nourish ourselves, so that we can face our biggest challenges, pause, regroup, find our courage, and then with our inner resources well-stoked, we go on out into the world and make a difference.
This is such an exciting time to be alive - and also terrifying and at times despairing. We are dealing with a global pandemic, climate crisis, refugee crisis, the long tail of colonialism and racism, and ever-increasing inequality, to name just a few. But we are also rising up - whether through Black Lives Matter, in response to racism and the murder of George Floyd, or by standing alongside Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists, or via the likes of the Me Too Movement. Change is in the air.
This is the time to rise up and speak our truth. It takes courage and skill to stand up and say "Enough!", or "Let's do things differently". And it takes resilience to stay determined and calm in moments of conflict so that we do not create other forms of oppression and dominance.
So this is part of my mission - to develop the emotional resources and resilience that help us stay present to this world, to attend to the traumatic times we face, and to build strength to respond creatively, decisively and compassionately. And that is where the Feathers Project comes in. It is about noticing what nourishes our nervous system and brings us to that sweet spot where we have enough inner resource to step beyond our comfort zone - whether it is to create art or to create change.
Activists and artists need to act but they also need to time to rest... to pause... to reflect... to replenish the internal stores. We need our 'cuppa tea'. As we nourish ourselves, we are building our capacity to respond effectively and adaptively to the world around us. And if we don't do this part of the process, if we don't stop for our 'cuppa', then we're just frazzled and stressed which is part of the problem not the solution.
So let's all take time for our metaphorical 'cuppa teas', so that we can nourish our nervous system. This is how we move forward, beyond paralysis / blocks, and out into the work we feel inspired to do. The feathers project simply makes this into a daily practice, an art process of cultivating inner resources, creativity and resilience so that we can make a difference in our world.
Incidentally, I think artists have lots to offer in terms of activism. Here is a link to some artwork I made 10 years ago about my fears and hopes around climate change.
This weekend I spent a couple of hours with my friends Crafts Without Borders - an initiative to bring migrant and local women together to meet each other and share crafts. This time we made lovely felt bowls. Mine is top right - blue with yellow inside. When you put them altogether, they look lovely - a representation of shared time and what can be achieved as a collective. It’s a lovely example of how repetition creates beauty. Repetition also creates patterns - for better or worse.
My teenage sons laughed when I proudly shared my bowl. “Are you going to put your soup in it?” they mocked. “What can you use a felt bowl for, Mum?” Well, I found a great use for it this morning. I’m going to put my self-doubt in the bowl while I get on with my work. I’ll have a listen to what it needs to say later in the day, for maybe 15 mins. But for now, it’s safe and warm in my felt bowl.
My self-doubt is a repeated pattern since early childhood. And I am lucky enough to have had a lovely childhood in many ways. But still self-doubt travels with me. All those times it has repeated its message of ‘not good enough’ have worn a path in my brain - a strong neural network trying its best to protect me but holding me back instead.
To counter such strong patterns of thinking/feeling/doing/being, I have tried many things. Meditation helps. Therapy has been helpful, when I can afford it. But the best thing is to look after my own mind/body which means nourishing my nervous system. If I don’t get enough sleep, exercise and nourishment in my daily life, then I become frazzled. And when I’m frazzled, I have no reserves to manage my self-doubt and as a result I am less able to be creative, or to do anything that requires courage and calm determination.
So I try to create patterns out of processes that nourish my nervous system. And that is essentially what the Feathers Project is about. Pattern creation. Supercharging the creation of new neural networks through repetition. And making that reptition more enjoyable and durable by creating an artwork in the process.
So what would you do if your self-doubt was put in a felt bowl for the day?
My work focuses on living WholeARTedly.
Part of living wholeheartedly is being able to experience the full range of our emotional life. Let's look at the word emotion: It has the same root as the word motivation and that's because our emotions are there to motivate our actions. The limbic system of the brain, including the amygdala, is the body's inbuilt remote control system to help us move away from danger and towards reward.
Of course, we also need to be discerning about which actions are the most effective. And that's where the cognitive part of the brain comes in. However, if our nervous system is shot due to stress or trauma, and we are caught in fight, flight or freeze, it's a lot harder to access the pre-frontal lobes of the brain.
Creativity is a great way to bring our thoughts and our feelings together. 'Making stuff' requires head, hand and heart which is why it is so healing. And it helps us to get moving again. When we are stuck it is often because we have come to fear our emotions and in so doing, we resist letting our emotions move through us. If we are not moved by our emotions, they are not able to motivate us and so we become stuck.
So my approach to coaching creativity is to first calm and nourish the nervous system, using creative processes that engage the whole mind/body complex, and then to explore what my client is drawn to emotionally and visually.
Creativity is not just about 'art'. It's simply the process by which we make new things happen or bring newness into the world. Science is as much about creativity as art is. Healing ourselves is being creative. Likewise, creating innovative solutions to the many challenges that face people and planet - all of this is creative.
So the coaching and courses I offer are not about making 'pretty art' - they are about getting back into the flow of life. Because by nourishing ourselves we begin to feel creative again and this allows us to regain a sense of agency: We move from feeling stuck to feeling excited and able to take action again.
The first web-course that will go online (hopefully by September) is the Feathers Project because this is all about nourishing the nervous system so we can get from feelings of burn-out to experiences of flow. After that I will offer courses that explore specific emotions such as Self-Doubt, Grief and Gratitude. That way you can choose a course that feels most relevant to you.
I'd love to know which courses to prioritise so please fill in the survey below - it only takes about 30 seconds. Thank you.