My Body is my Home

Process painting by Jenny Hahn
Process painting by Jenny Hahn

I just had the joy of leading a process painting workshop this last weekend for a group of 25 women as a part of a Creative Renewal Retreat. The room came alive with courageous wild women who were ripe ‘n ready for creative expression, dipping their brushes into a vibrant spectrum of tempera paints and seeing where the brushes wanted to go. Process art (and painting, specifically) is very much about shifting from the head to the heart and seeing how the body wants to move with color from moment to moment. In fact, one of the ladies shared with me after the retreat that moving more into her body and heart was her greatest take-away.

For me it’s been a long journey to come back into my body, one that has lasted decades and is still happening on some level. I imagine this is true for many people and especially for women. We’re taught from such an early age that the body is “bad” and has to be kept in line through some form of control. We’re taught that it’s dirty and smelly and needs lots of products to keep it presentable. We’re taught that its needs are not always in our best interest and that our hungers and desires must be monitored. We’re taught that its natural appearance is not good enough and that we have to spend a lot of money and time to make it look a certain way. We’re even taught that others get to make decisions about our bodies for us, and that we don’t always have the freedom to choose.

It’s no wonder that during my formative years I developed an eating disorder. I was uncomfortable with my body and its natural hungers. I was terrified of feeling heavy emotions. I was even skeptical of my sexual energy. And more than anything, I felt a need for control in my life.

Painting for process was one of the tools that helped me unlock the door to this physical form and reconnect with my body and her needs. In fact, my teacher used to suggest when there was discomfort in the body to symbolically “hand the paintbrush over” to that part of the body and see what it wants to paint. This can be a powerful practice indeed. When we’re feeling a gripping tightness in our belly, what does the gut want to paint? Perhaps interlaced swirling snakes? Or a primal scream? Maybe tears flowing out of the gut’s eyes? If we’re in judgment of our bodies and our sexual expression, what would the body paint when we metaphorically hand the brush to the pelvis and let it express?

Psychologists understand that the body and the central nervous system can hold and carry unexpressed emotions and even trauma in need of healing. I find that allowing the body to move and express and paint without the interference of the mind and inner critic is one of the many ways to access that which is unspoken, unfelt and needing expression. I am not a therapist, but painting in this way has helped me find wholeness in my own life and reclaimed that parts of myself I had abandoned or abused.

In addition to using process painting, here are some other ways I’ve worked to come home to my body:

  • Turn each meal into a meditation: When I was working to heal my eating issues, I began to “bless” my food before I would eat it, then imagine the nourishing qualities filling my body as I ate, and finally sit silently for 5 minutes with my eyes closed when I was done in order to relax and breath into my belly and envision that healthy digestion was providing my body with every nutrient it needed.
  • Move in joyous ways: Our bodies are made for movement, and if we sit at a desk for most of the day chances are we need to add conscious movement to our routines. I recently started attending a weekly fitness class (having a buddy really helps to keep one accountable)–but I also love to dance, to swim, to go for walks and hike in the mountains. Other joyous ways to move include love-making, playing with kids, silent discos, yoga in the park, and hula hooping.
  • Carve out time for restorative care: These days I’m better about noticing when my body is exhausted and my nerves feel fried, and (when I’m conscious) I take an evening to find balance. Sometimes this means soaking in my tub with epsom salts and essential oils; sometimes it means attending a restorative yoga class; sometimes it’s as simple as laying down with an eye pillow over my closed eyes and listening to soothing music until my body feels restored.

Our bodies are gifts. They allow us to move and express in this physical world. They allow us to feel pleasure and pain and ecstasy and everything in between. I am grateful for my body and I now do my best to take care of her… to feed her when she’s hungry, soothe her when she’s stressed, rest when she’s exhausted, move and dance and play and pleasure her in every way. She is my vehicle for expression in this world. She is my home.

Tips for Self-Care

As a process painting workshop facilitator, I teach others how to use painting as a tool for mindfulness and self-discovery. The process arts can be a great platform for showing up to ourselves and creating space for the difficulties in life. But beyond the workshop setting, how can we show up to our most authentic selves in our day to day lives? Here are some suggestions of mindful and creative ways to take care of yourself.

  • Create a ritual. We all need quiet time in our lives for connecting with our inner spirit. What could you do each day to create a meaningful routine? Perhaps you have an altar where you can light a candle and set your intention for the day.
  • Breathe with your belly. When we’re stressed our breath can get shallow. Begin to breathe from your belly by relaxing your shoulders, lengthening your spine, deepening your breath, and allowing your belly to rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. Keep your eyes closed with your hand on your belly.
     
  • Step into nature. Nature is healing. Your nature time can be as simple as walking around the block and noticing the vastness of the sky. It can be time spent sitting under a tree. Or it can be a visit to the nearest park.
     
  • Take time to play. What did you love as a kid, climbing jungle gyms? Coloring with crayons? Playing dress up? Give yourself an afternoon or even just an hour to play with childlike wonder and curiosity.
     
  • Prepare your favorite foods. Cook yourself a meal (or order out) and sit down to really enjoy the food, eating slowly and mindfully, savoring each bite and feeling nourished.
     
  • Love your body. Your body is a vehicle for your spirit and it deserves to be nurtured and loved exactly as it is. This can include sensual self-loving, dancing, yoga stretching, getting massages, taking warm baths, eating well, and affirming love every time you look in the mirror.
     
  • Enjoy naps. It’s okay to take a break from the world and hit the reset button with some well deserved sleep. Wrap yourself in a comfy cocoon of blankets and pillows. You can even use a scented eye pillow. Breathe deeply. Consciously relax. Let go.
     
  • Write your heart out. Writing can help you get your thoughts and feelings onto paper. Your journal can also be an art journal– containing sketches, scribbles, doodles, cut-out images, and anything that makes your heart smile. Begin by answering the phrase “Right now I feel…”
     
  • Express creatively. Sing your emotions, paint them, or dance them. There are countless ways to express yourself and you don’t have to be an artist to do so. You are a creative being, so give yourself the space to express, whether it’s in a sketchbook or on a canvas in the corner of your room or with a camera or with your vocal chords.
     
  • Use gentle self-talk. Start paying attention to how you talk to yourself and notice if your self-talk becomes abusive. Imagine that you are talking to a child whom you love dearly. If necessary, write out some affirmations for yourself that you can put in a visible place, such as “I am a beautiful being worthy of love.”
     
  • Ask for support. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s the time to seek help from the support systems in your life. Call your therapist (or find one), join a support group, or attend a workshop. It’s helpful to keep a list of friends or professionals you in your journal or in a nearby place that you can call when you feel disconnected. Know that you are not alone.