Painting as a Portal: Expressing—and ultimately befriending—your shadow side

She wants peace. She wants to manifest it both in her life and in the painting in front of her. Only the good stuff, though. The light stuff. She hates darkness. Yet her painting feels contrived and her annoyance with it grows. Inside, all she feels is frustration.

Paintbrush in hand, she makes another yellow stroke on the paper, creating what appears to be a sun shining down upon a field. “I can’t get this to look right. I want it to shine!” she says, tensing as she again tries to manufacture lightness. Her hand stiffens. “I know. I’ll add some pretty flowers to the field instead.” Dipping her brush into the lavender in her pastel-colored palette, she adds little flowery dots to her painting—but it feels forced. Her tension builds.

Thoughts of a disagreement she had last week with her boss bubble to the surface, but she squelches the feelings. I really don’t want to go there right now, she tells herself, trying to push the memory out of her head. I just want to paint this scene. But it’s too late. The irritation won’t dissipate. Anger erupts like an internal fire. “I want a peaceful landscape!” she screams suddenly, jabbing the brush into the paper. “I am a peaceful person!” She lets loose as paint from the palette splatters onto her landscape, “ruining” the tightly controlled image. The colors drip and mix together in a bloody rainbow mess. 

Devastated, she surrenders to defeat and sobs. Tears flow and anger rages, with floodgates bursting open. In that opening, a switch is flipped and she finds herself reaching for more colors to smear onto the paper, feeling a strange rush of energy through her entire body. Wait a minute, she thinks. That felt pretty good.

She rides that energetic wave, courageously smudging on more paint—even adding a second sheet of paper to extend her painting and make it larger. She creates a bold swipe with brilliant red. Then she does the same with some darker colors. Then black—lots of black. She can’t get enough of the black in a big swirling motion. She no longer even cares about the painting. She is transfixed.

What was once a stiff landscape has shifted into a cross section of rich, fertile black soil and a seed-like pod, accented by random colors and the swirling energy of the sun above. The added darkness of the black brings contrast to the rays of sunlight, making them shine even brighter. The painting’s raw power and honesty is palpable—and strangely breathtaking. It’s not at all what she wanted to paint, but it feels right. She exhales deeply, and she feels peace.

Meet the Shadow

Can you recall a time when you wanted to show up a certain way and fought hard with the present-moment reality of your experience in order to stay in control? Perhaps you identify as a “spiritual” person who doesn’t give pause to negative feelings such as sadness, rage, fear, or shame. 

Process painting by Jenny Hahn
Process painting by Jenny Hahn

In Jungian psychology, the shadow is the unknown dark side of the personality. It’s all that stuff we’ve been repressing because it’s not socially acceptable or spiritually aligned, all the stuff that is messy and hard to deal with. These unwanted qualities are so deeply buried and so far removed that we often don’t even think of those aspects as “us” — we think they’re the things we despise in other people. They belong to the “unspiritual” people, the ones who are asleep, the difficult ones, the idiots, the enemies…the others. But not us.

Perhaps it shows up as an unresolved childhood trauma, anger we haven’t expressed toward a boss or spouse, shame for not living up to the expectations of our parents, or maybe grief around the hatred we’ve harbored over the years for our own bodies. Whatever the stuffed and ignored feeling is, it wants to be seen—and deeply felt. It demands this, and resisting those demands gets harder and harder to resist. We’re often terrified to let the shadow in, imagining that it will stay forever.

But here’s where the paradox lies and the magic happens. When we allow ourselves to feel the difficult feelings and explore them with paint, surrendering to “the demon” and asking it what it has to say to us, this demon inevitably transforms. Our resistance softens and we find ourselves getting curious about what this monster looks like. This is a brave act indeed, as emotions flow and the entire body and psyche are present to this vulnerable yet honest expression.

Then suddenly we might realize, after shining light on our darkest places and shifting our relationship to our shadowy self, that a strange peacefulness has enveloped us. This is not a forced peace or a sugar-coated happiness, but the deep authentic joy and contentment that comes from being with what is, right as it is. In fact, resisting and holding down what we don’t want to feel is what causes it to linger. But letting it pass through without attaching to it with elaborate stories and identification brings us to the joy on the other side.

Reclaiming Our Power

The shadow contains much of our vitality, creativity, and power. These important forces are not available to us when we’re using our life-force energy to constantly hold something back. Psychotherapist and author Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D., puts it this way in his book Spiritual Bypassing (North Atlantic Books, 2010): “Real shadow work not only breaks us down but also breaks us open, turning frozen yesterday into fluid now.” 

In order to be whole, our psyches and souls need integration. It’s part of the healing process and a necessary step in our evolution. When we slow down enough and quiet our minds to allow space for what wants to happen, the results may surprise us. We might find more of ourselves. 

I appreciate New Thought teachings and tools such as affirming the good and changing our thoughts to change our life. But at the same time my practice of Buddhist insight meditation has taught me the value in being present to what is, along with developing a new way of relating to our experiences that involves compassion and equanimity for them. We can’t skip over the parts of ourselves we don’t like and still be whole. This is where process painting becomes a perfect marriage of these two paths. It’s the multi-colored thread that weaves together the where-we-want-to-be’s and the where-we-are-right-now’s. It’s the excavation tool that uncovers the buried and forgotten parts, as well as the flashlight that shines compassion and curiosity on them, inviting those parts to join the banquet of belonging.

The tactile, messy quality of painting and moving with color in a pre-verbal, subconscious, and intuitive way is actually medicine. It’s an alchemical process on a whole-being level that happens from within out. In fact, this healing balm of mindfulness and creative expression may be exactly what we need to bring balance to our troubled times, because a world plagued by war, poverty, hunger, and inequality is also a reflection of those qualities within each one of us. When I shine light on my own shadow and do my own work, I am at the same time taking a revolutionary step toward healing on a global scale. I am owning it and transforming it on a personal level, one moment at a time, and the effects ripple outward.

Painting as a Tool

Art is usually created with some intended end-result, whether it’s to sell, to impress, or to bring us peace. Process painting is different. It’s exactly like it sounds—the goal is the process, not the end product. This technique simply uses the medium of paint and intuitive expression as a tool for mindfulness and self-discovery. 

Process painting involves the whole being—the body, the mind, and the emotions. When we paint, we’re showing up to whatever is arising in the moment, exploring it in color and form. Digging in the dirt, so to speak. Getting messy. It’s not the mind acting as an intermediary, forming a concept or interpretation of our experience and then recreating it in color. Rather it’s the direct and immediate experience of what arises as we paint, as we tune in to our most innate instincts and paint with immediacy—even if we don’t have a clue what we’re doing. When we create in this way, something magical begins to happen: Our whole being is restored to equilibrium through the expression of whatever we were previously holding back. Without rules or expectation, we allow the stream of consciousness to flow and express itself. Every painting becomes a mystery revealed, a stone overturned.

In a workshop setting, each person is supported exactly where they are—as they are—while embarking on this journey of self-discovery using the tools of tempera paint, brushes, paper, and present-moment-awareness. One does not need to be an artist to use painting in a transformational way. Creativity is part of our very nature.

Creative blocks happen only when we obstruct the natural flow of experience, either through judgment or by the refusal to feel something. Living in the creative flow requires a willingness to see and feel whatever arises in each passing moment, with awareness and acceptance—not a passive acceptance where we resign to being victims of our experience. Rather, it’s an acceptance of whatever we’re feeling on the inside. Only then can the outside begin to change. 

Process painting bring us to the honest and pure truth of the present moment, beyond time and space. It’s a portal that allows us to touch the unnamed truth of our being. That truth is paradoxical. We are both animal and we are Divine. We are darkness and light, yin and yang. We are raw, unbridled energy incarnate. Instinctual drives embodied in flesh. We are all of these things, plus those things we have not yet tapped. We are life itself expressing creatively, ever-curious of what the next brushstroke will reveal.


This article originally printed in the May/June 2017 issue of Unity Magazine

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.

Painting as a Mirror

The process of painting brings me face to face with the truth of the moment… to the ME that cannot be escaped. There can be no masks, no fabrications. This can be a scary place, truly, but a place as real and as honest as it can get. In this way, painting is like a mirror of my internal experience.

I’m not talking about the way the painting looks, which is a physical result, but painting rather as a verb. The process of showing up to the vastness of the unknown without instructions or a road map. Facing whatever is there: The internal voices in my head that question and moan and try to convince me to ditch the studio to go get something to snack on, or go have a beer…ANYTHING but face the apparent emptiness and uncertainty that is felt in my gut.

But staying with the truth of the moment can bring some interesting results: It’s as if the doubts and fears are like the terrifying monsters that stand guard at the temple of the Divine. After seeing them for what they are and courageously stay with them, or even take a step forward, they will eventually be silenced and bow before us, opening the way to a new reality.

So this is our practice… The “Hero’s Journey” as Joseph Campbell called it. Standing in our courage and journeying into the unknown, unmoved by fears and distractions and driven by a deep-seated desire to know ourselves and find our bliss. And it starts in the present moment, right where we are, without masks, standing before our painting. As sobering and humbling as it is, where else in our lives can we find such moments of pure honesty?

Courageous Love

Sensibility, a process painting by Jenny Hahn
“Sensibility”, a process painting by Jenny Hahn

Love is not just a feeling.

It’s also a state of being. An intention. And one that can be cultivated regardless of what’s going on on the outside.

Attention. Openness. Acceptance. Curiosity.

Are these not forms of love?

Rather than the manufactured shiny red plastic Valentine’s love that is supposed to look a certain way—and, as it turns out, can be quite shallow and hollow—I’m talking about a love that’s able to embrace the grittiness of life. It’s able to embrace our experience of the present moment exactly as it is.

This kind of love is not a memory of the past or a fantasy of the future…it is the aliveness and texture and flavor of the timeless NOW, and can only be experienced NOW. This moment is always rich and full, regardless of the content of this moment.

This kind of love is not dependent on feeling good. In fact, we can feel like shit and still feel the embrace of love. Things don’t have to be pretty or pleasant. We can be messy, irritable, bored, lonely, or in pain. And all we have to do is to get curious about whatever it is. Bring awareness to the experience. And hold it lightly with compassion and acceptance. And then we can zoom out and see that the entire feeling of said shittiness is actually floating in a sea of acceptance and love.

Courageous love.

This love is unconditional. Independent of conditions. It’s not fickle. It doesn’t judge. It sees with eyes of acceptance and embraces it all. It also is not dependent on people or accomplishments. Let me repeat: Not dependent on people or accomplishments! It does not have to be earned. (This is a tough one, at least for me.) It’s easy to project our love onto others that believe that they’re the source of our love. But in actuality, they are a reflection of it.

This love is the natural state of our own deep awareness. Therefore, it comes from within. In fact, you could say that it doesn’t come from anywhere… it’s who we are. So there need not be any striving or wishing or longing–it’s already here now. It is the unconditional tenderness of the awakened heart. Your heart.

So whatever it is that you’re experiencing right now, give it attention. Open to what it has to say. Accept it as it is. Explore it with playful curiosity. See it and know it. Embrace it. Fully.

We are cultivating a new kind of love.


Click to view work from the Celebrations of Love collection >


Sensibility, a process painting by Jenny Hahn

The senses are awakened in this figurative process painting that poetically captures the act of smelling a flower: the intimate yet simple experience of olfactory arousal, pure present-moment awareness, and the union and connection between self and the surrounding world.

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