Saturday, April 4, 2009

Art for Healing

In ancient Egypt the Temple Beautiful was the center of healing. It was a place that used all of the arts to restore balance in the sick. There was an instinctive understanding that music, beautiful objects, incense, massage, graceful movement, as expressions of balance, order and harmony, could entrain the body and pull together disordered energies.
For centuries of recent history we’ve treated the body and mind as entirely separate domains. The title of Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes Error” sums up what he and other neuroscientists were finding. Feeling, the response of the body toward balance, directs conscious attention and motivates thinking. Groundbreaking scientist Candace Pert uses the term bodymind to emphasize that our whole being is the mind, far more interlaced than we’d ever realized. Understanding the depth of that interconnection, it’s not so hard to understand how emotions can affect health. In the research, it was less an issue of what emotions were present, but more a case of awareness of them. Dr. Herbert Benson in his book “Timeless Healing” emphasizes that attitude toward one’s situation is central to healing.
Unrecognized emotions are more apt to pathologize, to express their presence physically as some type of illness, as if the bodymind can’t get our attention any other way. Since as Susanne Langer says, ”Art looks like feelings feel,” finding the art that corresponds to an inner state is a way to recognize them. When we respond to art of any kind it’s because it resonates with personal themes alive in us at the time. We’re drawn to what reveals our heart. Art serves to help us see feelings that the stresses of day-to-day life obscure. Understanding internal patterns can help us discover fears and contradictions that may be interfering with the best use of the flow of our lives. Where there’s a disintegration of order in the bodymind, beautiful art, which exemplifies order, can help reintegrate.
The I Ching notes “Music has the power to loosen the grip of the obscure emotions.” Not only loosening and clarifying, modern studies have shown that listening to favorite music stimulates production of endorphins, which moderate pain and reward helpful behavior with pleasure. Science is beginning to support the efficacy of art for healing.
Just like the travel to beautiful locations has healing benefits, even time with an art book can stimulate endorphins and reroute our attention to whatever will help us grow. With so many ways to access images, through search engines and websites, all people can find the kind of art that reflects them and through it see the deeper levels of self, which go beyond surface differences. This connection may be the most healing element of all.
Social isolation has been determined to be a serious risk factor in health. Whatever creates a sense of connection to the human community can offer some relief. When an artist expresses a feeling that has deep resonance with a personal emotion the viewer has a sense of being understood, that someone else in another space and time has felt this way, shared this state of being. Reconnecting to the cosmos through the universal language of art pulls us back into the whole from which we mistakenly felt separate.

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