Art Healership Lessons

A lesson on confronting the demons in our quiet

Frida Kahlo, Lo que el agua me dio (What the Water Gave Me), 1938, oil on canvas, collection of Daniel FIlipacchi, Paris

It is in times of solitude and prolonged quiet that some of our deepest fears emerge. Our body and mind, in these moments, are working in tandem to push the soul to begin the healing process. Or, as Stephen Cope (psychotherapist and yoga teacher) describes:

The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it we must first agree to exile nothing.’

Frida’s journey into her bath waters, sees her past pains emerge in myriad forms, seemingly turning what should be a relaxing bath into a fear-filled swamp rife with demons.

These moments are surreal, and can even be terrifying should we end up unintentionally looking these demons in the face. ‘Journey’ seems an inappropriate word, considering this trip into the darkness is one we’d often not rather take, one that might more appropriately be entitled ‘rescue mission’. For in these instances we must be saved from ourselves, by ourselves. The more powerfully we resist, in trying to exile our demons and fears, the more vigorously they cling to our reality, distorting both how we see the world and how we subsequently react to it through our behaviours.

Accepting that this journey is happening for you requires a kindness from you to you; it requires a tolerance of occasional, and temporary, discomfort. Such unpleasantness is not an indicator of truth, but is the catalyst through which you must pass to find your truth. Still, the quietude can feel perilous; we are looking squarely at our darkest demons, those that reside in the depths of our minds. They are the pains of the past, longing to be understood, translating themselves into thoughts and images in the only way they know how: fear.

You might imaging an unpleasant scenario, such as being cheated on. This demon does not wish to inspire fear, however, that is not the goal. It wants to be processed and loved as a part of ourselves – even though they may look like the least loveable parts. What this unpleasant waking nightmare is doing is showing us where we hurt: in this case of being fearful of being cheated on – do we feel worthless in some way? Do we give ourselves enough recognition for our innate value? Manifesting as something fearful is a demon’s way of letting you know that they are important; they just may not have learnt yet that this is perhaps not the most effective method of asking for your help; you need each other for guidance.

In this way, our demons are not demons at all. On a literal level, they are thoughts, scenarios, images, and every other form of meaning that can be made by the mind. But, to stretch the metaphor further, our demons are our pain, shrouded in menacing cloaks, and disturbing visages. We reject them for exactly these reasons – because they are scary, showing us things about ourselves we would rather not acknowledge in the hope that this will make them untrue. Consequently, they have no choice but to become something that inspires terror, because it is one of the only things to which we might pay attention. Yet, counterintuitively, we have trained ourselves to view these demons, but still very reasonably, as a threat. Superficially, they are challenging our very sense of self: who we think we currently are and what perceive our world to be. But who you are, and the reality of your world, is exactly what they’re trying to reveal to you.

This is not to say that the demons are who you are, and nor is it to say these visions are what you secretly really think of the world, but cannot yet admit; it is to say that we have become too closely identified with the version of ourselves that is accustomed to living in fear, and it is to say that what they are trying to show us is the world. Once understood, a certain clarity about our own realities can be achieved.

We would also do well to remember that they wouldn’t show themselves if we couldn’t handle them. For when they do arise, we are really presented with a choice: do we distract ourselves by getting out of the bath (by falling into a social media sinkhole, or socialising until the past is fuzzy, distant, and bearable)? Or, do we give ourselves the space and time in the still waters to ask the silence: ‘I recognise you’re trying to help, but it is painful for me; so, can you tell me why you are here?’ In asking that question alone, we reclaim ownership of our pain. We begin to learn to protect ourselves and our demons, rather than blindly allowing the demons to do what they can to protect us. Frida herself acknowledges this process and what it can do for the soul, that is, the process of being a stranger to yourself towards becoming one with what you fear. Of the journey she stated:

‘I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by the decent and good feeling.’

From Frida’s experience, we should take away the understanding that they’ve learnt how to swim because the bastards knew we can handle them all along.

Confronting these demons is not something we naturally know how to do. It is not part of anyone’s schooling, but it can be learnt. At the very least, Frida created her art so we would not be alone as we stumble headlong into a healing, falling gracelessly into a quiet bath time full of our greatest fears. Perhaps finding a way to bathe alongside such disruption is the secret:

  1. Thoughts that evoke discomfort are trying to teach you something

In the quiet of Frida’s bath, the things she loves are entangled with the things she hates. Each polarity therefore can be seen as attached to a displeasure, not peace (as one might expect from such an experience). For instance, the inclusion of succulents and desert plants could symbolise her roots, specifically her Aztec history of which she was overtly proud; however, their placement in the foreground, at the opposite end of her legs to her feet, could indicate a deeper disconnection with being unable to bestow the culture that flowed through her blood to a child, having been rendered incapable of having children after her trolley accident at the age of eighteen. The solace we can take from this image then, begins here: what arises for us, is simply what arises; it should not be judged as positive or negative, but viewed with curiosity. There is no shame in the mirages that appear for you, no matter how they mutate into thinking or imagination. Just remember to ask: what are you here to teach me about myself and my world?

Some strategically placed desert plants (detail from What the Water Gave Me)

2. There is no such thing as a good or bad thought; demons show you more complex truths

We should not berate ourselves for having thoughts that cause discomfort in ourselves or for thoughts that we might think upset others; they are valid and important. In being tangled with how we feel about the issue, they should be seen as symbolic. What they symbolise, however, will rarely ever be so simple as to indicate that you are a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. Idiosyncratic in their expression, the demons (in thought, feeling, or image form) hav chosen to show themselves in a ways that are interpretable.

For instance, today, Frida depicting the Empire State Building being engulfed in the hellish heat of a volcano might not be the most well received theme for patriotic American audiences. Nonetheless, such a scene is probably not her wishing a hellish end upon anyone. Instead, it is likely representative of her ire at having to bend to the life and work of her husband, Diego Rivera, and move to live in the USA. Sacrificing the comfort and home of Mexico caused a deep resentment in Frida and not unjustly. So, although on the surface, such an image might appear dramatic, and even satanic, it is probably just what her resentment looks like in its rawest form, having been torn from her homeland and forced to stay in a foreign place where the values and customs were somewhat discordant with her own. As such, the USA, more specifically the buildings (maybe due to their connection with Capitalist American’s approach to work) became the cause of her misery and then understandably manifested as the embodiment of her feelings of isolation. being swallowed by a volcano, with some clarity, demonstrates how Frida felt about America and everything for which the Empire State Building stood. For Frida, it was America that stood in the way of freedom.

Demons are never a symbol of who you are in the form in which they arise; deeply understanding them, and only then passing judgement, is a far more effective method of gaining self-knowledge. We would not think Frida a ‘bad’ person for having this thought, despite its apocalyptic appearance. You are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and neither are your thoughts; both are reductive (and actually unhelpful) judgements when trying to find your truth, you are you, and ‘you’ is a far more textured realisation that should feel more like this: ‘Ah – this is what my unique experiences have led me to believe about myself and the world’.

3. When calm, pursue a dialogue with your demons

Already covered is the overarching, ‘what are you here to teach me?’ But, as humans, no single question will suffice; our pain is complex and is often obfuscated by the deep waters of our soul. No single sequence of premeditated questions will lead us to our own realisation or growth; to provide one would be to take away autonomy. The process must be tailored and reflected upon as we go – and you are best placed to do the tailoring. Envisage a difficult conversation you’ve had, however, and you’ll no doubt recall how unsettled it has left you during, and even after. Before any dialogue can begin with your demons, take care to create calm: a valid and clear thought, judgement, or discovery, cannot be drawn from disorder.

Embarking on this perilous mission will result in difficulty and perhaps even mild to intense terror. So it is best you position yourself, physically and mentally, in a space in which you can pendulate into the dialogue and swiftly out of it should it become momentarily unbearable.

First take care of your body. Calmness can be achieved here through yoga (to ground yourself in physical sensations), a leisurely walk (to root yourself in the scenery or your steps), or, for the more sedentary, a bath (which is the obvious choice here, especially if you’ve got some great smells to focus on, or even some warmly flickering candles to stare at, but in the event that you don’t have these things, focussing on the feel of the water can also soothing enough). Taking care that your body is relaxed will prime your mind for calm, regulating your emotional system into a state in which it is safer to discuss difficult topics with yourself.

Second, a brief meditation will sharpen your mind, allowing you to become more capable of observing your mind for what it is: the water that cycles in a river journeying from the sky to the night sea and round again. The river, or journey to the sea, is not shaped by what flows through it, but by the places in which it is allowed to erode. Meditation places strategic levees to make this journey smoother and somewhat less chaotic. The significance of water to this piece could contain yet another meaning; it could also be indicative of the childhood memories many of us may harbour, and the meandering necessary to reach the depths of our diverse childhoods (which might even overlap with memories in the tub). Or, yet another message could be adrift in the water. Frida’s legs are submerged, with only her toes poking out, reflected in the still water; could this represent the stillness she achieved by having this dialogue by using painting as her mode of communication? Her bath seems to show her own reality, her own thoughts, and her own demons, for what they truly represent.

Now, the kinds of questions we ask, whether through internal dialogue or painting, should unpick the thoughts and images that arise; remember they are symbols of the core beliefs we hold. Ask yourself about concepts you have unquestioningly internalised, links between unlikely ideas, probe for similarities to your earliest memories of certain emotions: Why might I imagine plants of my native land when thinking of children? Why is marriage the pinnacle of a relationship to me really? Why is clothing floating in the water, and what does the way I dress mean to me? What does ‘loyalty’ mean to me? Why do my parents appear behind a plant in my mind and hover over my most intimate moments? This memory keeps replaying – what feeling does it evoke – and when was the first time I can recall feeling this way in my life?

Such a conversation, as acknowledged, can be painful and brutal. But it is the first step in promising to exile nothing, to understanding our demons, and to integrating them with heightened awareness into our day-to-day lives. Only then can they become beacons of self-knowledge, rather than unconscious determiners of our beliefs about the world that have been shaping life up until this moment.

Frida Kahlo’s feet (Detail from What the Water Gave Me)

We are confronted with a truth in this painting about how pain exists for human beings: The past, when it is still painful and unresolved, will remain an ever-present determiner in shaping our cycle of feeling, thinking, and doing. This cycle becomes how we see and interact with the world, and if left unchecked, we have no choice but to regard the present while bespectacled with lenses that are only fit to allow us to see the world tinted in the shades of our past pain. What we see, what we continue to allow to terrify us, is what becomes our reality. Frida’s words reaffirm the veracity of this phenomenon: ‘They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality’.

So look your ‘demons’ in the face (one at a time, and calmly, so they don’t erupt uncontrollably) when they choose to emerge from dormancy. Invite them into your moments of peace and solitude; they’re here to do more than help you have a relaxing bath. They’re here to help you relax into your future self.

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