Reflection was the key word, and reflecting upon where we had been led to a kind of retrieval process. We went back to find parts of ourselves — into the basement, the attic, the bottom drawer of an old bureau that hadn’t been opened for a long time. We collected the shards of former impulses, pieces from another time when we felt alive, when we could see the gold flicker at the bottom of the lake. Out came the unfinished quilt, a sheaf of poems, a fiddle, and we embraced them like long lost children. Within each piece we found an aspect of ourself, an essence that held the energy of making, intention, passion and dream. We reconnected with the itching felt in the fingers, the words flying through the mind, the force of spirit. This energy would act as mirror and guide for what was unfolding in us now as we pushed our way toward spring. We were re-membering ourselves.
Our self image is dependent on our ability to imagine. If we define ourselves too narrowly, we suffocate in the box we have made, the life force pales. When speaking about my interest in creativity or creative process, people often say apologetically or wistfully, “Oh, I’m not good with my hands. I’m not very imaginative,” or, “I used to...make jewelry, garden, write...until....” Until what? Until when? In certain medicine traditions, when someone is ill the shaman asks, “(and) when did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing?”
The creative process is the birth process. We have to sit on our eggs in the dark with the unknown, waiting. What will the face be? This is especially hard in a culture that is forever pulling us out of ourselves with busyness, with filling up empty space or silence. When we deeply receive ourselves, cross over the threshold past the voices that hold us back, we discover hidden treasure.
Think of your life as your art, yourself as a riverbed rich with image. What are the images you’ve gathered into your basket saying this is me. What is the story you are weaving about yourself? You dream, worry, some outer event presses in on your days. You are aging, or a new mother, or working with illness. The power of self expression — making a crude drawing, a simple movement, a few scrawled lines — is its ability to transform.
From the void come images or presences to engage with that are mysterious, charming. Sometimes they frighten, bring up old terrors. A witch brandishes a shining blade before your nose, or a tiger roams your apartment looking for you. We must include the dark. By staying with ourselves, our images, we begin a journey that leads us down a path toward a larger sense of self.
Meeting Yourself At Your Own Front Door
One of the ways I have worked with myself over time is through photography. I grew up in the shadow of Eastman Kodak Company in upstate New York where my father worked for forty years. Our family life was filled with cameras, bright yellow boxes of film and free processing. There has always been a black box in my life, and it was from this image pool I put together a presentation I was asked to make on spiritual journey. I entered the retrieval process, assembling an autobiography through photographs, poems, journal entries, a tape of music.
One of the discoveries I made was the sense of a kaleidoscope of an ever-changing self. People who thought they knew me said, “You were that!”… that meaning the stunned bride in her perfect pageboy overlooking a sea of wedding presents, gleaming chafing dishes and silver tea sets. Yes, I was that, I was this too, and this. I felt the power behind the concept of impermanence. In this lies a freedom that we are not limited to one view of ourselves, one tired story.
In his dharma talks Jack Kornfield speaks of the tremendous creative energy behind impermanence, the great cosmic flow unceasingly pouring forth, giving shape to forms and experience. So we gather the lost parts of ourself, not in a fixed way — this is who I am — but to awaken to the larger dance, the real mystery of who we are.
Forget about extreme makeover. Your photographs will show you how many times life has made you over. Gather together as many photos of your various stages of life that you can find, including ones from your childhood. Create a space for yourself that is relaxing and free of distraction, with plenty of time to browse, sort and reflect on the treasure trove in front of you. First you may notice hairdos, that bouffant that morphed into an Afro, the Buddhist nun look that transformed into (depending on your age) Farah Fawcett’s or Julia Robert’s luxurious waves. You are re-membering yourself.
Choose a picture of yourself as a child; almost everyone has at least one tucked away. Look at all the details, the 1961 Chevy Impala in the driveway behind you, the Collie dog who was your best friend. Then go a bit deeper. You might want to soften your gaze, to let the image in, to receive yourself. Perhaps you connect with some trait you like, a sparkle in the eyes, a proud stance, remembering how new you felt on a morning in May. Or the bowed shoulders that surround the ache in your chest? Now you have the opportunity to forge a relationship with that aspect of your imagination.
You may want to sit and write in your journal, let the child speak to you. Or place the photo on an altar or a tabletop where you’ll pass by often in a day. Then stay aware and awake for what unfolds. Even if you think you know what the photo and the story it depicts are all about, there will be more to discover. The child is an archetypal energy with its own potency and calls for your attention periodically, no matter what your age. In recalling your inner child you reconnect with qualities that you have forgotten or disconnected from. “You will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,” as Derek Wolcott’s poem "Love After Love" claims. This is deep essential work.
Here is a portrait of the self from your old neighborhood, but what about now? Who is the unfolding self? You might want to play with self portraiture. Even the simplest of cameras has a self timer. The new digital cameras are thrilling for instant seeing, for unleashing creativity. The photographer, Joyce Tenneson, speaks of her self-portraits as “not me” but as emotional equivalents of herself. Myriad forms of human emotion acquaint us with a deeper nature; we begin to see that we are all this, that, and that too.
The Magnificence of Your Own Story
Another avenue for tapping a deeper self is through the medium of words. Memory washes up on the shoreline, offering shards of brightly colored beach glass. Some have jagged edges, some are as smooth as skin. What will we fashion from the pieces?
A writing mentor of mine, the poet David Whyte, used to toss out the question to a group of writers, “Can you tell the magnificence of your own story?” We squirmed in our seats. “Who me?” I thought. “What do I possibly have to say that is worthy of being told?” Yet, we all bear witness, imbued with our own language and sensibility. Even a small event, the ordinary life said in plain language, reveals an extraordinary light.
Magnificence does not imply something lofty, but rather the truth of your own voice. I remember a workshop where David had us lay down on the floor and make sounds from our bellies, in order to connect with a deeper aspect of voice, beneath the everyday. My ears began to distinguish the voice that is coated with niceness, or disassociated from one’s core, or confined to a constricted throat. We were a chorus of sounds from the dark basement, ragged croaks from the bog. Can we bring our whole self to our words on and off the page?
In writing groups I observe those new to writing are often intimidated by the more seasoned writers. They swoon over how lyrical the prose is. The seasoned ones marvel at words saturated with a person’s truth. When the new writers read aloud in a shaking voice, we hear bare truth, authentic connection with self. We are touched by the particulars of a person’s story and open to the universality of our experience.
Try walking around your home, gathering a few objects that in some way catch your attention. They may be simple things — a seashell, letter opener, pearl necklace and pine cone. Again, prepare a quiet space for yourself, free of cellphones and the outside world.
Spread the objects out on the floor or a table, and have your journal and a pen next to where you comfortably sit. Look at the pieces, turn them over in your hands, make contact with them. Spend time with each thing, bringing all of your senses to the object. Then, choose one.
Begin writing about what you observe. How would you describe the color on the inside of a seashell? Forget about good or beautiful writing; you are merely describing, almost as scientific observation. You can time yourself, say ten minutes, which pushes you deeper into looking.
Then pick one of those observations that stimulates a memory, or has some flash of recognition to it or emotion. Now write into that thought, feeling or story. You may want to begin with the words, This reminds me of... If you feel stuck just return to the object. At some point your pen will begin to glide across the page. Keep going, beyond the voice that whispers, You can’t say that! Your job is to get out of the way and let the words fly. You are back opening that letter that changed your life; you are watching your mother fasten her pearls before the mirror of her dressing table, you smell the Elizabeth Arden perfume she sprays on each side of her neck, pssst.
The things of the world speak to you. Whether through the trees and wind or a red wool sock, the soul is stirred by entering a dialogue. You are in collaboration, making meaning of your being here. What part of the creative cycle are you in? What is the new self emerging and what are you shedding?
Collectively we are in the season of late winter thaws. The first shades of green push up through the mud. The tight bud of the daffodil readies to sing its song. What better time than now to sit with yourself, to listen to the groans of spring in you? Grab a journal, a map of the lines of your face, or go empty-handed. Imagine yourself on a path through pinewoods, leading to the cottage where an old woman prepares a space by the glowing embers just for you.