by Marie Perret
I have long been fascinated by the fairy tale most commonly known as ‘The Handless Maiden’ or the ‘Girl with the Silver Hands’ as there are many parallels between this extraordinarily wise story and the healing process that can happen through the practice of spontaneous painting. The tale begins with the loss and sacrifice of the feminine where an innocent young woman, not properly protected by her father, has her hands cut off by the devil. In the same way, many of us go through trauma as children and so grow up ‘without hands’, without the necessary strength and discernment to make healthy life choices, without an authentic expression of ourselves and with a limited contact to our own creativity.
Suffering and loss often mark the beginning of a search for wholeness, a call to leave the limitation of the known and no matter what it takes, find a means to access greater depth and a conscious connection to the Self. The young woman bandages her wounds, leaves home and travels alone through the countryside. Without hands she does not have the means to take care of her own needs, to feed or soothe herself. She can only follow a call to go deeper, to find inner healing. One moonlit night she comes to a castle with a moat, beyond which is an orchard. Helped by a spirit guide who drains the moat, she reaches a pear tree that bends down and offers her a fruit which she eats. The next night the young king, his gardener and his magician watch her eating a second pear. The young king falls in love with her, marries her and makes her a pair of silver hands. We may live our lives without a true expression, without true soul nourishment, until we are touched by being ‘seen’ and valued by a significant person, or until we find an activity or therapy that helps us to repair our trust in our feelings and in their expression.
The story does not end with the marriage, but continues with seven years’ separation and a further series of initiations (involving the devil and a wise old queen) that permit psychic growth and integration. At the end of the seven years the king, young queen and their baby are reunited. To the king’s surprise his young queen no longer has silver hands, but has grown her own hands back. Through her endurance and through inner work she has healed her connection to her deepest self and to her expression.
I see parallels between this story and the practice of Spontaneous Painting that provides a safe and joyful discipline within which we can explore, practice, and persevere. For many people Spontaneous Painting is like being given a precious tool to access the nourishment within their own psyche – it is like being given the silver hands to reach their own pears.
I started to paint spontaneously when I was living in Zurich about twenty-seven years ago and could not speak German. Although I was happily married with a young baby, I felt cut off and isolated and was longing to find more freedom of expression. I joined a Spontaneous Painting (Ausdrucksmalen) group and painted there for four years and since then have never stopped. Besides my wish to paint and to feel freer in my expression, I wanted to see what was inside me and what would come out if I did not direct myself with my thoughts. It was the beginning of a period of great exploration, inspiration, integration and intuitive learning through an evolving contact to my creativity. In this period I was working professionally as a therapist (speaking English or French) and practicing meditation which certainly strengthened and deepened my creative journey. I became fascinated by the connection between creativity, healing and the human mind. For the last twenty two years I have been running workshops on healing, creativity and spontaneous art and keep reflecting on the question of empowerment or healing through art.
It is not necessary to have any particular artistic skill to paint spontaneously. When we practice spontaneous painting we do not learn a technique or a new skill, or aim to produce a masterpiece, but simply express our feelings using art materials. This may be challenging at first because we have grown up with many ideas about talent, art, artists and results. We have to forget about all these, about product, and allow ourselves to experiment with letting go into the process, into a natural flow of ‘connected doing’ (the connection between the king and queen, the inner feminine and masculine blend.) Another word for this is playing.
When we play, a natural connection happens between our feelings, our inner world and our expression. Recently I was sitting by a lake and watched two little girls arrive and very quickly start a magical game of building dams. They were singing, clapping and making rhythmical body movements to accompany their dam building. They became so happily concentrated in their own world that it was very difficult for them to stop when their parents called them to leave. This is an example of what I call the natural ‘creative cycle’ – being drawn into feelings and expressing them with nothing coming in-between.
When this state of absorption happens, we open to deeper states of awareness and on an energetic level this allows light or faster moving energy to be drawn in and move through our bodies. Spontaneous Painting can thus be a door (to the moonlit orchard) that enables us to go beyond our problems, beyond the repetitive thinking mind, into another state of consciousness (where we are nourished by the pear/stillness/an opening to inner wisdom). It is an active meditation.
“Anyone who is creative in any way must have access, if only momentarily, to non-thought, to stillness, a state of alertness that brings newness, freshness, and is thus empowering. Creativity comes when we enter a state of thoughtless awareness, even if only briefly. That’s where the treasures come from, from beyond the mind. They may later be given form by the mind as music, painting, etc.”
Eckhart Tolle (2012)
Like the thoughtless father in the ‘Handless Maiden’ who does not protect his daughter, our culture has not taught us to really nourish ourselves, to value and access the right brain, feeling part of ourselves. I believe that much of the causes of suffering in our society – consumerism, addictions, greed and the search to possess more and more, come precisely from this pain of not being able connect to stillness which is also love and joy. I am convinced that in order to feel happy and balanced, we need to regularly lose ourselves in play and creativity in some form or other. It is a restorative, revitalizing and naturally therapeutic activity that not only children need.
One of the reasons there is so much interest in creative expression today is because of the breakdown of many structures which acted as authorities and once gave people security in their lives. In the last fifty years the balance has shifted away from external authority structures to an increasing number of people being in an ‘individuation process’ and seeking to find the means to connect to and trust their own inner guidance. Like the healing journey of the ‘Handless Maiden’, spontaneous painting gives us the means to transform the impact that external authority has had on us and to discover, explore and find our own treasures that lie beyond the limitations of our conditioning. As medicine men or shamans in traditional cultures often used some form of artistic expression to transmit what they had seen on their inner journeys, we too can bring out our inner visions to enrich and help others.
Spontaneous art gives us the means to move out of intellect into play, to bring multi-dimensional feelings into non-verbal expression. Regular practice helps us to develop endurance and a trust in the creative flow that draws us beyond good and bad, beyond judgement and towards equanimity and wholeness. In the fairy tale there is a period when several messengers travelling from the wise old queen are intercepted by the devil by the river. On an inner journey we need to stay awake, to develop discernment, in order to distinguish between the voice of our intuition and the voice of our fears and doubts that may seek to sabotage our growth.
Regular spontaneous painting linked to an awareness practice will draw us down into the living water of our bellies, the ‘area of creation’ in our own bodies. This is the connection to the Hara energy centre, the seat of life, vitality, power and passion within us. Persevering with creative practice, we can process, digest, and integrate whatever has touched us deeply and had an impact on us. This can be painful as well as joyful; mystical experiences that are beyond words. Spontaneous painting opens a way for our own wisdom to be drawn in through our bodies. It gives us the means to go into the unknown within ourselves, to explore and discover dimensions of our own being that lie beyond the thinking mind. I see many people who work regularly with spontaneous painting being drawn into processes of learning and reflection through their own feelings. This allows transformation to take place at a deep level within the psyche. (Isn’t it amazing that at school we had to learn almost exclusively from books!)
So much self-discovery, self-expression through vibrant colours, forms and images happen as if by magic and fill up the walls in the art room. Such themes as life, birth, death, partnership, a connection to the elements, a deep feeling connection to nature and animals, often appear in paintings without any prompting. Sometimes people access a causal level that links to the transformation of hereditary or karmic structures. I see people spontaneously painting their personal connection to spirituality, to healing processes, to dreams, to guides, to non-physical dimensions, to stillness. Of course, some people discover that they simply love painting that they have a genuine artistic ability and go on to develop this, and that is fantastic because for some people it is really discovering their true vocation. And last, but not least, is the joy, the aliveness, the passion and the fun that is freed when we open up to the creative flow!
One very passionate painter has come up to me several times after a painting session, with shining eyes, and said to me: “I feel so wonderful that if I had to die now, I really would not mind, because I just feel so, so alive”.
There are, of course, different paths to heal the split between the masculine and feminine, to access and trust inner guidance so that we can be nourished by this and then share this in our lives. This has been my own inspiring way of growing back my own hands, that I see also brings healing, joy and empowerment to others.
Marie Perret is a Psychotherapist and Artist, trained in Transpersonal Psychology, Mindfulness, and Spiritual Healing. She runs regular workshops and trainings in Art Synthesis in Co Kilkenny and South West France. Her book ‘Healing Art: Transformation through Creative Expression’ is available from “http://www.amazon.co.uk”
Tolle, E. (2012) Even the Sun will Die: An Interview with Eckhart Tolle. Accessed 6th December 2012: <http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/Even-the-Sun-Will- Die/298/Even-the-Sun-Will-Die/298.pd>.
Estes, C. P. (1986) Women who Run with the Wolves. NY: Ballantine Books.