By Sibel Ozer
Seventeen women from around the world gathered at the retreat center Sasseta Alta in Tuscany, Italy to practice the Art of Allowing. The theme of lyrical expressions that we explored through silence, movement, loving and supportive witnessing, and art expressions resulted in the release of long-held emotions, revelations of childhood memories, and newly found insights to name a few.
The amazing flavors of the farm to table cooking nourished our bodies as the diversity of this sisterhood enriched our souls. It takes a lot of work to create and hold a circle of such healing power, as human nature—when left to its own devices, can impact group dynamics negatively. The mind is always comparing and ready to attack the wellbeing of the psyche it shares a body with, with troublesome ideas of a wide variety. Someone is better in this way or that, the Self is too much, or not enough, or one is not belonging because of a particular feeling that seems true even though it has nothing to do with reality. The invisible work of good leadership involves the setting and maintaining of a strong container that curbs the attacks of the mind’s daemons, maintains the boundaries that create trust, and holds the various thoughts and emotions with a nonjudgmental welcome that allows release and transformation. Thank you Flora and Ree from the bottom of my heart.
I realized only later that I had great expectations around how wonderful it would all be in a way that wasn’t compatible with real life. I try to help my clients understand the many myths around mindfulness practices, especially the one that suggests that regular practice will lead to steady calm, happiness, or bliss. What mindfulness cultivates is an increased capacity to be present with all states of being rather then favoring the good over the bad and the ugly. One of the biggest takeaways of the retreat for me personally was that the same applies to retreats or vacations.
I wanted to share this as we are entering summer, which is often a time of great expectations for the best of times, especially in Michigan where the season of the sun is short and precious. As a reminder to be aware of our expectations, which create unnecessary suffering when reality doesn’t measure up to them; much better is when we can enter each situation (from everyday, to the best planned vacations) with an open heart and curiosity around what experiences it has to offer.
My experience overall was indeed grand, only quite a bit more exhausting than I would have imagined a retreat in Tuscany to be. Especially because I was making sure to walk the beautiful wild land that was booming with wildflowers and filled with birdsong, and had groves of olive trees that are old friends of my heart from childhood. And did I mention the amazing Italian cooking made with the freshest ingredients that I didn’t need to prepare myself? The saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and yet I cannot be the only woman thinking it’s sexy when her husband is cooking or spending time with the children. But I digress.
My first day was the easiest in that we were laying the background for our pieces, allowing our bodies to sway and move as we painted, working our pieces with a bottom up process similar to sensorimotor psychotherapy that uses the wisdom of the body in healing from trauma; The Body Keeps The Score, as Bessel Van Der Kolk, writes.
Our backgrounds are created in the Spirit of Trust, through engaging with colors and shapes freely and playfully, even with abandonment that can be thought of as a form of spiritual surrender. Doubt is an accompanying deamon of the mind that tries to get its fingers in the mix, so we practice mindfulness to recognize it for what it is in the moments that we step out of the flow state (which cannot be inhabited infinitely). I so love this beginning phase of painting where I am least concerned about the final product and having fun letting my gut and hands have their way with the canvas. I concluded my first day with a heart filled with gratitude at the privilege to get to paint among women I love, and to get to do it in the Italian countryside no less.
I woke up well rested, expecting another blissful day, when something happened following a heartfelt exchange with another painter. I had been working without a break for many months before the retreat, aware of a heaviness in my soul, which can happen as a result of witnessing the suffering we see as psychotherapists. I love my job because I am gifted with people’s truths day in and day out, I get the bad and the ugly alongside the good, a fuller picture of reality, and a deeper level of trust. Sometimes though my container fills up and I need to feel some of the feelings I’ve been witnessing. Many of the painters in our group have other talents, and one of them played an instrument I had never heard before: the Kotamo, which is a combination of Monochord, Koto, and Tampure. I was reminded of Rilke’s words listening to the haunting sound of the Kotamo that the point of life is to live everything, to feel all the feelings, and to not be afraid:
If a sadness rises in front of you, larger then any you have seen…
You must realize that something is happening to you,
that Life has not forgotten you,
that it holds you in its hand, and will not let you fall. (Rainier Maria Rilke)
So I gave myself permission to release the weight on my heart, letting the tears fall, allowing the sadness that is so healthy and appropriate, space. One of course doesn’t have to be a psychotherapist to end up accumulating sadness, it enters all our psyche’s through what life or news brings our way, and it doesn’t have to be restricted to human suffering either, we all respond to what is happening to animals and nature around the world whether it reaches our conscious awareness or not. The second day we began the discovery of seeing what our paintings wanted to reveal looking carefully to see if a figure was standing out from our backgrounds. This is another moment where one has to be careful of the mind trying to gain back control and have us do it’s bidding. Certain voices in the mind will try to convince you that what you see will be too difficult to bring forth or that it doesn’t make sense or that it is too childish. There is a psychic war going on between parts of our being as they try to have the final say in what comes forth from the canvas.
This is what I was seeing in the background even though my mind was telling me I had missed the lyrical expression I was seeing in many of the bodies painted around me. Why weren’t my bodies dancing or moving? Weren’t the wings of that angel totally childish looking? What did the phoenix have to do with anything anyways, maybe I should start over, surely this process couldn’t be trusted?!!!
And yet despite the exhaustion that allowing the feelings brought about and the nagging of the critical voices, I knew that Life holds me in its hands, that The Great Mystery is always there, asking me to continue painting even when things don’t yet make sense or look the way they are supposed to.
The third day started with a pulled hamstring, I suppose I needed to be humbled, being so full of myself in joy at my ability to jump over the puddles on my daily walks, or rush up the slope or stairs coming back to my room. Another lovely thought rooted in guilt was that I must have needed punishing for the privilege to get to retreat in Tuscany. So here is the advantage of years of mindfulness work: even as my mind was freaking out about the shooting pain in the back of my leg every time I so much as seated myself in a chair (how on earth was I going to bear the nine plus hour plane ride back home), I knew to stay in the present to the best of my ability and do what I could about the problem at hand. A dear physical therapist painter in our group generously offered me a series of movements to try and my husband sent a video of exercises geared to help with this particular injury. I, of course, wasn’t going to stop painting, and decided to engage in these exercises during our breaks. I was still feeling it when I went to bed, but woke up with an almost totally healed leg the following day. Since I have to find meaning in everything the moral of this story I decided is that mindfulness does not get rid of the crazy deamons of the mind that increase every type of suffering tenfold, but it sure can help recognize them for what they are, and help us stay anchored in the present moment which often seems ways more doable than the doomsday scenarios the mind can come up with.
I had brought out most of my painting by the end of the third day and what remained were last minute touches for the final day. I had woken up with the distinct sense that my angel wanted me to add tears to her face, in validation of the heartbreak anyone feels in witnessing the suffering of another. All group members did this for one another, we were leaning into each other’s support in different ways throughout the retreat. If a person suddenly had to leave the space, you already knew their roommate would be checking in on them shortly. Our facilitators were doing the same with us regularly, offering just the right amount of support whenever needed, whether technical or emotional. And I do believe that guides and angels must have been present supporting this entire endeavor, the feel of the sacred made visible in the art expressions surrounding me. It could be that they are always present when any one of us is being there for another with true deep caring in our hearts. This caring and witnessing is a lyrical expression indeed, and its song is that of the Phoenix.
Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice in downtown Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.