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Drawing Out the Soul and EHEs: An Essay Review

Rhea A. White  


Note: This article was originally published in EHE News, 3(1), March 1996


Shaun McNiff is a well-known art therapist who specializes in restoring "soul" by means of various art techniques he has developed. He observes: "Whenever illness is associated with loss of soul, the arts emerge spontaneously as remedies" (p. 1). This implies the process involved in withdrawing energy from the ego itself sets into motion the spontaneous emergence of unconscious expressive activities. Some forms of artistic expression—perhaps all—are exceptional human experiences (EHEs), so I suggest, in this context, that when an exceptional human experience occurs, it also mobilizes unconscious energy, not just at the moment of occurrence, but it sets the stage for other forms of experience to occur if the experiencer cooperates.

In this essay I point out the similarities between McNiff’s approach to art therapy as expressed in his book Art as Medicine (Shambhala, 1992) and the methods I have found useful in responding to EHEs. McNiff underlines the fact that his methods are interactive, and so are ours. In the case of EHEs, the medium is an experiential account (narrative), and I have taken a poetic, literary approach to them, but Henry Reed is having people act out their EHEs on videotape. It seems natural that painting them would also help to draw out their meaning and integrate it. We have often remarked on the importance of honoring the "Other" in working with EHEs, and McNiff says "concentration on the ‘other’ ensouls the world" (p. 1). He views "paintings [as] ensouled objects or beings who guide, watch, and accompany their makers and the people who live with them" (p. 1).

Although McNiff uses the word "image" and emphasizes artwork, he says he applies it to dreams and "movements, sounds, poetry, enactments, and ideas.

As soon as a painting is made, or a dream remembered, the images that constitute their being are experienced as wholly other. This autonomous life of the image is the foundation" (p. 2) of McNiff’s technique and of ours. An EHE stops the experiencer in his or her tracks. It is surely autonomous. It is an encounter with the Other, and it is a sign that the time has come to become more than you are. McNiff, as we do, emphasizes "interpretive dialogue," in which the image is the focal point. Whether image or EHE, when we associate to it, it is as if we have entered into a dance in which the object or experience leads. Instead of pigeon-holing the artwork or experiences by means of our current frame of reference, which tends to give us a smug feeling of having "done" something, then so we can go on to other things, McNiff asks us to "meditate on them, tell stories about how we created them, speak to them, listen to what they have to say, dramatize them through our bodily movement, and dream about them....Analysis and reason make many contributions to our meditations, but they do not dominate" (p. 3).

A very important insight McNiff offers is that as "every aspect of art [also read: an EHE] contributes to its medicine [read: its drawing forth], we do not assume that some expressions heal and others do not. Negative and disturbing images [poltergeists: supernatural assault? Precognitive dreams of accident or death?] are vital stimulants for healing [for showing us the More that we are] in that the toxin is the antitoxin....creative expression of the soul’s aberrations gives them the opportunity to affirm rather than threaten life" (pp. 3-4).

McNiff uses his own paintings "to show how an artist dialogues with his own pictures and how the many figures of imagination speak through the process" (p. 4). In part, Art as Medicine is McNiff’s EHE autobiography. By serendipity, he became the art therapist at a state hospital when he applied for a social work position. He had never heard of art therapy, though he wanted to commit his life to art. Thus, the stage was set for him to realize his vocation. Several types of EHEs occurred: sense of vocation, creative inspiration, synchronicity. "In retrospect," he says, "my primary therapeutic and artistic advantage was that I never belonged within the system. I was in an unfamiliar situation, so something had to be created from scratch" (p. 10).

Persons who have EHEs should take heed. Many EHEs are so outside one’s ordinary experience that the experiencer hasn’t a clue as to why one happened or what it means, so one tends to forget it, repress it, laugh at it. But looked at another way, it can be viewed as a great gift that has washed up from the depths and landed at one’s feet. How seldom are we presented with a genuine opportunity to create something from scratch? (This generally happens only to "God," so an EHE in a sense is an appeal to the "God" in us from the God that is all.) McNiff says: "The artistic daimon of therapy took up residence in me as a guide and suggested new combinations outside the established routine of both mental health and art. The daimon...is an archetypal agent, creation itself, that speaks through us" (p. 10). Today his work involves creating "a sanctuary where people experience the process of caring for the soul through painting together, meditating collectively on the images, dialoguing with them, and making performances" (p. 12). This is very similar to Montague Ullman’s dream-sharing groups, which are now officially sanctioned and promulgated by the government of Sweden. Both also could serve as prototypes for EHE groups, where experiencers get together to share their experiences, meditate on them, dialogue with them, and even act them out, if the spirit so moves them.

In this work with images, McNiff emphasizes the importance of detachment from the ego, of viewing it as just "one of many players or collaborators in the creative process. This perspective on ourselves avoids complete identification with the feeling of the moment. We are able to look at fear, anger, desire, ecstasy, depression, success, failure, and other emotions as phenomena with which we interact. They move through us. Change is guaranteed only if I can let go of my attachment to each feeling as it appears....ego tends to lock onto things, especially things it does not like [or, one might add, that it fears]. It gets caught in a single point of view....step aside and watch" (p. 13). One advantage in sharing artwork or an experience with others is that listening to their reactions helps us both to distance from it and become aware of aspects we ourselves had not seen.

In essence, what McNiff has done is find ways of "treating disorders of imagination through the constructive workings of imagination" (p. 15). An EHE can be viewed not so much as a "disorder of the imagination" as a rip or tear in the tapestry of consensus reality, an anomaly that was not supposed to be possible. This, too, presents the experiencer with the need to start from scratch, and if he or she is frightened, troubled, chagrined, outraged, or whatever, by the experience, this in itself provides an opportunity to begin an interaction that necessitates that the ego "step aside and watch" so that this "disorder of reality" with which one is confronted can be "treated" by the "constructive working of reality"—of a deeper, fuller reality than the experiencer—and much of Western culture as well—has known, or at least, has owned.

McNiff observes that by embracing pathos, art therapy "can actually contribute to the revitalization of art, which flourishes when it opens to the troubles of the soul" (p. 15). Similarly, the pathos of Western civilization, which is embraced when we recognize and attend to our EHEs, which are not supposed to happen, can contribute to the revitalization of society, for our conception of reality can also undergo major reconstructions when we open to the new possibilities inherent in each potential EHE.

McNiff observes that when he is directing a group that meets to paint together, the sessions tend to be more creative when the group leader also paints. Painting his own inner process encourages the others and it also catalyzes McNiff’s creative process. This is a suggestion that can be adapted by EHE support group conveners/leaders. Rather than simply direct and facilitate group discussion of members’ EHEs, the group leader should also share his or her own EHEs.

In a very interesting chapter on surrealism, McNiff discusses art produced by automatism—automatic drawings and paintings—and shows how the surrealist movement was an attempt to link dream and reality to result in, according to André Breton, "a kind of absolute reality, a surreality" (p. 45). This could be said to be the aim of working with EHEs, a class of which actually are automatisms, such as dowsing and scrying, and almost all of which occur in altered states that involve some degree of dissociation from the ego. However, McNiff emphasizes that the production of an autonomous object is not the end of the process but the beginning: "There is a complementary process of shaping, changing, and reflecting upon spontaneous manifestations" (p. 48). This, of course, is also true of EHEs. An anomalous experience that has not been amplified and integrated is not an exceptional human experience.

McNiff points out that "the word surreality itself was a restatement and revitalization of the divine" (p. 50), and it had a sacramental aspect when it was witnessed by people who came together for that purpose. They had "to be prepared for the event and ...fully accept its validity" (p. 52) in order to participate in and be aware of what was taking place. He uses the example of something as common as a stone which first arouses little interest, just as some dreams and other EHEs at first seem devoid of any special qualities or meaning. But if that stone is used in a performance or if the person who owns the object relates a narrative of how it embodies "significant events and passages," it becomes "‘ensouled’ and alive for everyone in the group. The objects are animated by the attention they receive" (p. 52). The same could be said of sharing or relating an EHE. Until it is told to others, it seems unreal, but when it is shared, that act, combined with the reception given it by others (even if critical) gives it new life and strength ("animation"). However, this is not simply a case of making something out of nothing. As McNiff says, "people looking at [or listening to] the object do not ‘give’ soul to it. They witness and affirm the soul qualities that are already present but unseen. The same applies to persons. The group affirms the life of the soul that is active in all of us but which goes unseen and unacknowledged" (p. 52). Certainly this applies to EHEs when they are shared. It is why it is important to form small groups of EHEers in which they can share their experiences and discuss their possible meanings.

McNiff describes a type of EHE that I have called the "aesthetic experience." He writes: "In art therapy we see how the environment of the studio is transformed when people begin to interact creatively with their pictures. When this shift occurs, the feeling tone immediately changes, imagination enters the room, and an unconscious sense of sacred spectacle, safety, and support from others is established" (p. 53).

The essence of McNiff’s technique is to stay within the image, to keep returning to it—not ideas "about" it. Similarly, we must stay with all aspects of exceptional human experience, not ideas about it. McNiff calls it a movement therapy, because the image can move and transform. "When people open to art’s suggestions, they change as they watch images change" (p. 56). Here, relating to the image is not a matter of rationally discussing style and symbolism but of relating ourselves to the image and vice versa. McNiff "views interpretation as an unending process of attunement" (p. 57).

When we stay with the image that presents itself the image gathers people together. It does the same for all of ‘the participants’ within ourselves, the many different voices and figures who are for the moment fused into a shared commitment. This is the eternal function of ritual and meditation to bring a focus on something ‘other’" (pp. 58-59). Similarly, in writing about this book, I could sum up what McNiff says in a paragraph, but by quoting some of his words, sometimes adding a nuance or two, I try to engage the reader in the sense of process, not simply convey an idea about working with art images and EHEs.

Another cue as to how to respond to an EHE is his realization that art cannot be "explained." It simply exists. Moreover, "art cannot be isolated from its context and then used to support a foreign system of concepts" (p. 65). And so it is with an EHE. What we need to dwell on is not "how did it happen" but "Where does it want us to go"? Where is psyche moving by means of this artwork or this exceptional experience?

Taking his lead from archetypal psychologist James Hillman, McNiff observes that an exclusively narrative approach to recalling a dream or describing how a picture was painted is too formal. Instead, he learned to let go his mindset and go with the image. This resulted in a medicinal art which was expressed nonlinearly in "episodic action and diverse forms of expression, spanning years or a single day" (p. 70). Similarly, the EHE text is continually infused with seemingly acausal associations and connections that amplify and reveal the meaning of the experience. This does not result in chaos or in being carried away, for "imaginal reality is always situated in an actual experience, a specific image, an immediate reality" (p. 73).

Going further, McNiff introduces the idea of "approaching artistic images of angels," which puts us "outside the frame of positive science and into the archetypal mainstream of poetic and visionary contemplation" (p. 74). Similarly, we propose that the same approach be used with an exceptional experience, asking not what linear concatenation of circumstances brought it about, but what does it intend with our lives? "The angelic perspective approaches paintings as tangible and personal figures that influence the lives of people who meditate on them. Through contemplation I enter the world of the painting and its angels who arouse imagination, offer assistance, console, evoke feelings, or inspire me to paint again" (pp. 76-77).

McNiff draws on the work of Henry Corbin, who described the relation "between the person and the image, or angel, as ‘an archetypal dimension because it grounds every being in another self which keeps eternally ahead of him’ " (p. 77). And so it can be with EHEs. They can ground us in a new identity, but one that is also in flux and constantly moves us forward to we know not what, except that the process can be trusted.

One very important point McNiff makes about the process of ensoulment is that it is not a matter of projection. "People looking at the object do not ‘give’ soul to it. They witness and affirm the soul qualities that are already present but unseen" (p. 52), as in the earlier example of a stone. Similarly, the text of an EHE, if responded to appropriately, should "grow in the telling." As its multiple meanings and connections are recognized, it, like the stone, becomes a window on Reality at large. But the original exceptional experience was not simply a fabricated story—it was/is a fabric of the universe itself.

McNiff writes: "If we can imagine a painting imagining us, then we are in the visionary realm" (p. 84). He had this experience when seated alone in a gallery of paintings. In similar fashion, once one has an exceptional human experience—but even if one is not fortunate enough to recall any—if one studies and listens to descriptions of accounts of others’ experiences it is difficult not to imagine them "imagining us," speaking to us, calling us forth to knowledge of our greater reality.

These experiences cry out to be heard, acknowledged, honored, and followed, as the angels that in effect they are. A whole panoply of changed behaviors can result, starting with finding ways to attend and to listen. Rarely does the message come like a thunderclap. Often it is like a mere rustle in the forest that requires cultivating stillness and attention to discern. We must become transformed into tuning forks, so that we can become aware of the subtlest of leadings, or as T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Dry Salvages," "hints and guesses,...followed by guesses; and the rest Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." Or one could say, Ensoulment. Nor is it simply a case of learning to "go apart" to attend properly. Equally important is the need for dialogue and discussion of the experience or painting with others. "Discussion can further awareness, although it can never replace silent reflection" (p. 85).

In a chapter entitled "The Daimonic Tradition," McNiff quotes Jung (Psyche and Symbol, Doubleday, 1958, p. 27), who "described how the daimon comes to us ‘from the outside, like providence’ and we are entrusted with ‘the ethical decision.’ We choose whether or not we will cultivate the gift and enhance its flow" [italics added] (p. 90). If only one sentence could be written about how to respond to an EHE, let it be that. Each exceptional human experience confronts the EHEer with an ethical decision, which is whether or not to "cultivate it" and "enhance its flow."

However, at the heart of the book we come to a line with which I take issue. To McNiff " ‘spiritism’ is the belief that spirits are literally, as contrasted to imaginally, present—the literalization of poetic experience" (p. 92). I insist that in the exceptional human experience of an encounter with "spirits" there is a veridical element, as there is in every type of EHE. And it is precisely that veridicality that does the "work" of stimulating the imagination. Like any other EHE or like a painting, this is not the end but the beginning. One must not get sidetracked into trying to "prove" that the manifesting spirits were "real," but must encounter their reality as it comes and "cultivate the gift and enhance its flow." The question is—not did they manifest as experienced and if so, how, but why did I encounter this particular reality at this particular time? What is it telling me about my life?

Part Two of the book is entitled "Dialoguing and Other Methods." In seven chapters McNiff illustrates the methods of working with images with examples taken from the life he knows best—his own: meditation, dialogue, dreams, performance. Each chapter is invaluable in that it shows by example how to do this work of ensoulment using images or text. The third and last part is a long chapter, "Image Dialogues," which is a process that follows the creation of a picture "and creates yet another series of expressions" (p. 145). It is an application of Jung’s active imagination. Again, he uses his own dialogues as illustrations.

I recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to cultivate their exceptional experiences and respond to their flow. It would be easily adaptable for use in an EHE discussion/support group. Ideally, the group members would already have shared some of their individual experiences with the others, so that all members were familiar with them. One, two, or three experiences could be selected by lot or majority vote to be kept in mind while reading each chapter. A chapter could be assigned before a given session and while being read its relevance to the chosen experiences could be worked out by each person as they read. Then, when the group meets to discuss that chapter, those members who wish to could share their ideas, with special time allotted for the experiencers to respond to the group’s suggestions and for a dialogue to develop.


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