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Mindful Living -Creative Endeavors

| Dr. Monica Neel

When my parents returned my kids from a weekend visit recently, there was an extra item in tow. My dad had found my second grade school binder. It looked as if it had been tucked away in its original order with disorganized stacks of my school work. Sifting through the papers, I discovered yellowing math pages that had been torn from a workbook and purple ditto sheets that no longer held their smell (remember those?). Lastly, TONS of artwork - sketches, coloring, paintings.

Sadly, I had no personal memory of any of them. But while looking at them, I could clearly tell they were created by a child (me!) who loved art. That resonated with me and I quickly thought, "Why don't I do this anymore?"

Monica artwork

I reflected on this to think of when I last incorporated art into my day-to-day life. I recalled that a friend had introduced me to making jewelry beads with colored clay. I had vivid memories of pieces I'd made, some of which I still have today. I felt as though I was in a time warp as I realized that occurred while I was an undergraduate student...over 20 years ago! How had so much time passed with me neglecting this interest? I scanned across the timeline beyond that phase to see graduate school, post-doctoral fellowship, marriage, kids, family illness, and my career. I know many pursue all these endeavors and continue to pursue passions and arts. I commend you! What I noted for myself, with hopes that this resonates with some of you, was that with all the balls I was juggling, some balls got dropped - in my case, forms of artistic expression. Being artistic hadn't lost its importance to me, but it fell from rotation as one of the many balls I was juggling. So, what's the big deal?

The importance of participating in creative endeavors is touched upon in multiple theories of psychology. A basic premise of cognitive behavior theory (CBT) is that our thoughts and behaviors impact our feelings. Thus, by modifying our thoughts or behaviors, we can alter the resulting feeling state. More simply put, if we are doing things we enjoy, the resulting mood is most often positive. A typical exercise in CBT is to have individuals track their activities throughout the day and rate the level of pleasure obtained from various activities. I've often explored with clients experiencing depression how their busy, full, and often over-scheduled days have very few tasks or activities subjectively rated as pleasurable. It's very easy in the pace of our current world to have our time consumed with responsibilities and obligations, thus squeezing out time for self-care in the form of creative expression (or exercise, reading, etc). I often describe this to my clients as going through life on auto-pilot. Obligations like work, household chores, shuttling kids to/from sports, and other errands are all tended to, but one may feel drained and apathetic. Tasks that are simply pleasurable are squeezed out of the schedule because there seems to be no time to "indulge" in a task that has no obvious purpose. I, as I imagine is typical for many others, fell into this trap. If a task wasn't overtly practical or necessary, it was sent to the back-burner. However, it is flawed logic to assume there is not added value to "indulging" in pleasurable activities. I often use the metaphor of charging one's phone. It takes time while it's docked, but leaves your phone with more battery power. Likewise, pursuing creative endeavors takes a bit of time, but the resulting effect is often feeling energized, enhanced mental clarity, greater efficiency, and joy. While many tasks are energy draining, artistic pursuits are often restorative to our energy and focus. Take a moment to chart your waking hours of the prior 3-7 days. You can do this on a piece of scrap paper or on this worksheet.

  • What do you notice about the activities that consume your time?
  • Are you satisfied with the representation of tasks you find pleasurable?
  • Is there time set aside for sketching, writing, or some other form of creative expression?

An alternate theory, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encapsulates this concept as "values-based living". Simply put, when we live our lives based on personally meaningful values, we are happier and more fulfilled. ACT theorists specify 10 realms of values, one of which is "recreation, fun, and leisure." I find it powerful for individuals to consider that "fun" is a realm that should be tended to as equally as career or family. As suggested by Harris (2008), reflect on these questions:

  • How do you relax and unwind?
  • As related to artistic expression, what qualities would you like to cultivate in yourself?
  • If there was nothing in your way (like time constraints, obligations, or even perceived ability), what mode of artistic expression would you pursue?

Your answers to these questions may help crystallize your value of artistic expression. This is an important step, but not an endpoint. Using myself as an example, I've always valued artistic expression and creativity. However, when I reflected on my time spent engaging in creative endeavors (based on CBT questions), I was not living my life according to this value. Living by the value requires what ACT refers to as "committed action". It's often difficult to initiate any new behavior change. However, when that change is anchored in values we've owned as important, the power of that value acts as a beacon easing our path and goal development.

Perhaps this exploration has led you to an awareness that you do value creative expression and would like to transition that aspiration into action. As you set goals to nurture this value, reflect on the following:

  • Consider what realm of artistic expression you would like to pursue. Is there an art form you've pursued in the past? Alternatively, make a visit to a local craft store and browse the aisles. What mode of creativity calls to you? The options are endless from sketching, various paint mediums, sculpture, scrapbooking, jewelry making, textiles, writing. You'll know it when you see it!
  • Nurture your craft. Purchase a supply stash so you have what you need on hand. Have a dedicated workspace or, at a minimum, a specific storage space. Surround yourself with likeminded individuals via classes or blogs.
  • Protect time. Be realistic based on your own schedule and the endeavor at hand. If at all possible spend even 10 minutes a day tending to your craft. Perhaps that means engaging in the task, planning for a larger project, participating in online forums.
  • Have a plan...especially in the beginning. Construct or seek out prompts for yourself. This may be helpful in nurturing your early growth and stretching your "creative muscles." I participated in a drawing challenge to facilitate my efforts and offer suggestions for what to draw each day. This was a simple and powerful way to facilitate my efforts. I had a tiny pad and borrowed markers, pencils, crayons, and paints from my kids. Monica drawingEach day, I knew exactly what I would work on based on the prompts. It encouraged me to expand beyond my comfort zone and guide my creative thinking.
  • Take stock of what you notice. As you engage in your craft, what feelings are you aware of during and after? I noticed while drawing that I became physically very calm and mentally noted a mindful meditative state. Throughout the course of my days while participating in the drawing challenge, I noted an enhanced awareness of my surroundings and a tendency to tune in more fully to color, light, shading, and angles of objects and landscapes around me. I also tended to feel more centered, patient, and proud of myself for devoting even a small bit of time to something that interested me.
  • Maintain committed action. As you tackle the immediate and short term goals above, continue to consider the actions you can take in the next few weeks and months to nurture your value. Consider long-term goals you'd like to work towards. Over the course of the next year, how would you like to see your relationship with your craft evolve? Are there particular projects you'd like to undertake of further training you'd like to pursue?

As you move forward, remember that the overarching goal here is to incorporate creative expression into your values-based living. Make efforts to tune into the moment and hone your senses as you fully participate in your craft. If you become caught up on the quality of your creation, remind yourself that there is value in the process that is separate from the final product that you create.