We have many clients with extremely deep pockets, but one stands out in my mind as I think about creativity, art, and nourishment. Judith used a portion of her exorbitant financial resources to purchase extravagant homes and have them decorated by a world-class interior designer. One day she realized that even though the homes were magnificent in their respective designs, she felt like she was living in someone else’s houses.
She told me that her “houses didn’t feel like homes.” She was on a quest for perfection with her real estate investments, but along the way, as a creative soul, she lost her sense of personal expression. When she realized that the lack of creative expression was a void in her life, she chose not to hire an interior designer for a redesign project and put her creativity to the test.
The joy of engaging in the creative process was greater than the risk of choosing furniture that was slightly too big or too small. She played with color and texture and scale in a way that brought her to life and made her homes a canvas for personal expression. These homes that were once thought of as extravagant had layers of feeling, intention, and personal touch that turned them into personal works of art—and perfectly imperfect.
When we fall out of having—or maybe we never developed—a relationship to creative expression, a part of us is not being nourished. Think about how we educate our children: They have both physical education and art classes in school, as they’re both components of becoming a well-rounded, whole being. While humans have been creating since prehistoric times, the less we exercise our creativity muscle, the harder it is to access and use.
This poses a problem because, in addition to being key to innovation, creativity supports our ability to express feelings and experiences that are too challenging to verbalize, such as feelings about a difficult diagnosis or trauma. Besides, for our high-performance-focused clients, the motivation to engage in creative endeavors, such as learning an instrument, is related to the fact that it has been shown to support mental functioning and white matter connectivity of the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
The brain is plastic, and creative endeavors have the potential to support our brain health the way fitness impacts our musculoskeletal health. Like any relationship or self-care tool, the creative expression must be practiced to leverage its gifts. This practice can vary widely from painting, writing, or playing a musical instrument to collage, carpentry, gardening, sewing, and beyond. We all express our creativity in different ways. And just because we’re a financial genius and great with spreadsheets doesn’t mean we might not also enjoy and benefit from baking or singing.
We worked with a gentleman who used to love to build things. He was a banker by day and a carpenter by night, although he didn’t make much time or space for his hobby. This was frustrating for him, but he was having trouble prioritizing this interest in the context of work and family. Building things felt indulgent, yet without the opportunity to work with his hands, he felt an emptiness in his day-to-day.
Through his wellness coaching, he got in touch with the importance of making space for creative expression in his life. Together, we agreed that a weekend building project would feel nourishing and therapeutic. Given his need for work/life/ family balance, he decided to build a treehouse for his children and involve them in the project. This was a huge undertaking and, for him, became a bucket-list item.
The process of working with wood creatively, using his hands, and putting his tools to work in service of a passion project was both rewarding and stress-relieving for him. Incorporating his children connected the dots in his life, and he was overcome by a sense of fulfillment. When the treehouse was complete, he felt like he’d done a good job of parenting, a good job at taking care of himself, and a good job at living. Isn’t that a feeling we all want?
Humor is creative. Being funny and enjoying funny people taps into intelligence, freedom, and joy and helps us take ourselves and life a little less seriously, which can be a relief. Catherine, a successful investor we worked with, decided to start taking an improv class one night a week. She was known as the “funny girl” her whole life and felt like she had neglected an important side of herself that she enjoyed and took pride in.
Life got serious as an adult. After completing this class, Catherine decided to start attending open mic night at a comedy club. She would show up in her blazer and black pants, looking like the businesswoman she was. When she got onstage, she tapped into a source of humor that had been lost since her college days, when she would have her sorority buckled over in laughter at any given party or study break.
Catherine had the audience in stitches, and it felt invigorating. Before her improv class and open mic nights, her husband was her only audience. She enjoyed being funny, as it felt like a creative outlet for pent-up stress, and her husband enjoyed it, too. He would find himself laughing until he was crying on any given Sunday afternoon, and he needed a good laugh as they were both wiped out from the daily routine that came with having three young children under the age of six.
Catherine’s humor was one of the reasons her husband fell in love with her, to begin with, and Catherine realized that it was one of the things that she most loved and enjoyed about herself. Making space for fun, whether we are the joke teller or joke receiver, is a nutritious and delightful dimension of the human experience. Like fitness, laughter has been shown to release feel-good endorphins and natural opioids in our brain, and couples who laugh together report greater satisfaction in their relationships.
According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, “In addition to supporting human connection, laughter decreases inflammation in the body and our risk of heart disease, most likely because of how it impacts our stress response.” Laughter truly is medicinal. When I talk about feelings following action in terms of self-care, I am reminded of this lovely quote by William James: “We don’t laugh because we’re happy—we’re happy because we laugh.”
Open to the Wonder
There is healing power in the arts, yet many people put the creative expression on the back burner when adult responsibilities fill our time and thoughts. Finding practical, realistic ways to reawaken the expression (or create it from scratch if we’ve never had it before) helps us tone our mind and soul and feel healthier as a human being. Carving out space on our calendars and physical space in our homes for creative expression helps us mentally hold space for the practice and give it the importance it deserves.
For many clients, creative expression is as simple as taking five to ten minutes each morning to journal or sketch upon waking, or after exercise or morning meditation. One client told me that she loved to paint as a child but stopped when she was in middle school when homework and sports occupied her free time. She said she always wanted to paint again.
I said simply, “Why don’t you?” At first, it felt far away to figure out how to bring that practice into her world. I’ve found that many people harbor a desire for creative process but need practical support to make it real. With this client, we talked about going to an art supply store with a specific list of what she would buy. We identified the space next to her meditation altar as an ideal location for her easel, and ten minutes after meditation as the optimal time to paint.
She was able to build the practice as an extension of her meditation practice. When she felt hesitation, she listened to inspiring music to engage her in the work. To fit the painting into her day, she was willing to go to bed twenty minutes earlier so she could get up twenty minutes earlier. For her, the painting was about the process of expressing the range of emotions that bubbled up for her during meditation.
She found her artwork, which wasn’t particularly amazing to anyone else who saw it, extremely therapeutic. Her painting process mirrored the process of her heart and mind. The importance of actions that allow us to flex our creativity muscle is backed by science, and even being a viewer of art and creative expression is healthy. In addition to impacting mental health, relationships, and cognitive functioning, studies show that creativity can positively impact physical illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and delay cognitive decline in an aging population.
Release the Pain
Creative expression can help us release physical pain and emotional pain as well as process trauma. When we close the door on creative expression or it’s simply not a part of our life, we create a block. When we open that door, we invite a deeper understanding as well as a release, which leads to healing and wellness.
Many noted physicians have incorporated art therapy into their work. For example, Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine and Miracles as well as The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing, explains how using creativity to understand our deepest beliefs and feelings can enable us to work with those beliefs and feelings in a way that supports our healing process.
Dr. Martin Rossman uses guided imagery and tapping into the creative power of the mind for healing the body. In my opinion, whether we engage in creativity with an intentional therapeutic purpose or not, by nature, the fact that we are doing it at all has healing benefits. In my twenties, I came across a book titled The Well-Being Journal: Drawing on Your Inner Power to Heal Yourself (1989) by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D. Through this book, I began journaling and drawing as part of my spiritual wellness and self-care path.
The book guides us through a process of coloring an image of our body to articulate where emotion lives in the body. It encourages the use of creativity to understand and heal. For example, if you color your throat black, you may feel you can’t speak freely or don’t feel supported in your expression. For me, the exercises in the book enabled me to see how my experiences and emotions were living in the cells of my body and, in some areas, creating blockages in my ability to thrive.
Finding the Time
Finding time for creativity is a challenge we all face on some level; we think, How will I fit this into my life? In my experience, the easiest way to find time to do something new is to tack the practice onto a part of our life that is already happening, as we discussed in earlier examples. Our creative expression may be dance, for example, thereby combining movement and nourishment.
As I alluded to earlier, one client of ours created a space in her day, while her coffee was brewing the old-fashioned way, to turn on music in her kitchen and dance for five minutes. This simple practice woke her up, brought her joy, served as a creative expression, and helped her go from needing two cups of coffee to one in the morning.
Whether we find a pocket where we would normally scroll social media or do busywork, tack creativity onto a movement or meditation practice, make space on a weekend with our kids, or find one night a week to take an art class or participate in an open mic session, with intention and organization it can happen. Similar to movement and meditation, even a few minutes can go a very long way.
Keep It Handy
Rebecca Bischoff had been a client of Namaste for close to a year, but something seemed incomplete about her self-care practice. She ate well, exercised, meditated, and had a solid, intimate connection with her partner. She wasn’t depressed, but there was a lack of fullness, a missing element of joy that she had trouble putting her finger on. But through a series of coaching calls, we were able to uncover it.
Rebecca said she felt secretly envious of her daughter, who was an accomplished musician living the life of a true artist, and although she had a successful career in Hollywood, it wasn’t as creative as she had originally hoped her path would be. We agreed that adding creative expression to her morning practice might help her find an outlet for this value and unmet need, and also bring some playfulness to her days.
We gave Rebecca a journal and colored pencils as a gift and encouraged her to use them following her yoga practice. A curious thing happened as a result: Sketching and working with color—although she wasn’t a visual artist nor particularly skilled at drawing—ignited an appreciation for creative play. This post-yoga practice became the driving force for getting on her mat each morning, which had been a major tool for stress management while juggling a big job in entertainment and being a mom.
With time, Rebecca’s creative practice blossomed further. She bought an easel, huge canvases, and paint. She converted her grown children’s bedroom into an art studio and hung her canvases around her, holding her in a creative space she found soothing and inspiring. Her art was only for herself, and provided the perfect balance to her career and actualized a part of herself that felt truly authentic.
Rebecca was also able to appreciate her daughter’s creative journey once her own needs were met. As humans, planting the seed for creative energy to expand supports our well-being. We are born to create on some level and bring our unique gifts to the world. Creativity is life, and when this energy is blocked—due to lack of exposure, life’s circumstances, or simply feeling that painting/sculpting/writing is for children or professional artists—we can feel less vitality and more stuck.
I believe creativity is a tool for longevity as it nurtures our connection to this primal life force, a way to continually give birth. Simply engaging can unlock and open the door to a creative practice that can be both enjoyable and healing. Like any great preschool teacher will say, it’s about the process, not the product, and the process supports our development as dynamic human beings.