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The Power of Using Art to Discern Your Callings

Art-making is a powerful tool for discovering your callings

“When I ask, ‘Where is my soul, how do I meet it, what does it want now?’ the answer is, ‘turn to your images.’ ” — Jungian author James Hillman

Art-making, whether conjured by a stick in the dirt or generated by computers, is a primitive impulse, something we express instinctively. It draws out of us shapes, images, memories and stories that can propel the process of self-discovery so essential to the discernment of our callings.

That is, we can use art to bring us in line with our calls.

“Art is an articulator of the soul’s uncensored purpose and deepest will,” writes Shawn McNiff in Art as Medicine. Through it, you can see your calls in writing and in pictures, make scale models and blueprints of them, conjure up visual aids. You can also reactivate the mind of the child within you, which knows what it knows with great simplicity and accuracy. In fact, the last time many of us engaged in artmaking was when we were children, and in most of us an artist died young and an adult survived.

All artistic practices, says writer Bharati Mukherjee, are “satellite dishes for hearing the signals the soul sends out,” and each artform individually offers unique contributions to the work of discerning calls. Drawing and painting expand our ability to visualize. Writing helps us tap into the stories we tell about our lives. Dance increases our range of movement and shows us how we position ourselves and move through the world. Through drama, we act on what we know.

Ultimately, the work of both creativity and discernment share many commonalities. They both increase your ability to “draw out” — to call into being — what didn’t exist in your life before. Just as sculptors often speak of freeing forms from stone or wood rather than creating them, you, too, through the artistic process, can work to liberate the spirit trapped in matter, the soul implicit in what the alchemists called the massa confusa of your life. You work — and ideally, you learn — to separate your own calls from the background noise.

This is exactly why I began my own journal-writing at the age of 19, and have kept at it every year since. I was, at that time, contemplating making the first big decision of my independent young life—quitting the college where I had financial aid because I hated it there, and transferring to one that offered classes in journalism. I not only had to discern a call but contend with much background noise, including my parents’ confoundment and the loss of the financial aid.

The journaling and self-reflection, the sometimes hours of unabashed and occasionally runny and confessional writing and storytelling I did in the months before that decision, helped me find my voice, my clarity, and my courage. It mirrored my struggle and called me deeper into it. And it was instrumental in precipitating the change I eventually made, because the simple act of recording my behavior interfered with that behavior, giving me a quasi-outside perspective on myself and the opportunity to make adjustments.

Through that first journal I discovered that though there’s a social language I’m compelled to speak and often struggle to make my own, there’s also a private language, a way I speak only to myself. Each time I use it I strengthen my connection to myself. The journal thus became a safe place in which to rehearse my feelings before articulating them to others.

A decade or so later I sat down and divided a piece of paper into three columns and made lists comparing the characteristics of the three arts to which I had devoted most of my own creative energies: writing, piano-playing, and drawing. When I was finished, I realized that the three lists were identical, that all these arts are leavened by the same ingredients: composition, tone, drama, color, surprise. They're all glass-bottom boats over the unconscious. And they all involve the exploration of priorities and the tasks of discernment: what must be kept and what must be discarded, what left in and what left out, what’s important to express and what’s not important.

Like calls themselves, creativity involves you in the work—and the challenges—of getting what's on the inside out. Your passions, your voice and visions, your sense of purpose, your hunger to serve.

But if self-discovery is your intention in art-making, if you want to draw out the calls that are embedded deep in the soul, then the more emphasis you put on formal standards of art and aesthetics, the less raw personality you'll probably see in whatever you create. When you make discernment of your callings your priority, the “quality” of your creative efforts is determined by how honest they are, how true the expressions are to your inner experiences. It's not determined by popularity, marketability, technique or talent. Think of yourself as having genius in the original sense of the word, which meant having a genie, a guardian spirit, which everyone possesses.

If you’re more concerned with virtuosity than expression and spontaneity, more intent on technique than emotion, more concerned with end-product than process and what the painter Robert Henri called “the art spirit,” you’re going to suffer a certain self-consciousness around art. It’s been shown that when people attempting to be creative know they’re being watched, they feel cowed and their art is less spontaneous and expressive.

But you don’t need to compare yourself with anyone else in order to feel intimidated. Your own standards are quite sufficient to put you at a disadvantage, especially if your art resembles something rendered by a first-grader. Again, by first grade, most of us were well into trading off spontaneity for conformity and had already begun putting the brakes on making pictures, telling stories, dancing around the room and singing. So when you start up again, it makes perfect sense that you’d pick up where you left off.

In fact, you probably should. Just pick up an oil crayon or colored pencil and simply move it around on a page, see what emerges, see how it feels, see if you can keep your mental mitts off the process. Or wrangle with a lump of clay, which, being entirely tactile, is especially good if you tend to get marooned up in your head; shape it into an emotional self-portrait. Or take scissors to a stack of magazines and put together a collage depicting your state of mind or your hidden self or a composite of the person your parents would love you to be.

Or, as author Deena Metzger suggests, write a paragraph every word of which begins with a letter of the alphabet, starting with A, going to Z. “All big calls demand elongated fidelity...” or “A big corpulent dog eats fruit given him in jest...” etc.—and then write for ten minutes about some segment of it, a phrase or word that grabs your attention.

Or take a mood and make it move, find out what part of the body it wants to express itself through; move like an animal or the motion of underwater plants, spin in circles, shout or growl, make horrible faces.

Or take your camera, pick a theme—change, risk, nurturing, surrender, triumph, conflict—and head out for an afternoon to capture it.

Or just take a doodle pad into your next staff meeting.

What you’re after is letting the unconscious go on a roll with a paintbrush in its hand, or a hunk of clay or a keyboard, granting yourself permission to speak from the heart. The more you can make explicit that which is implicit in you, the more familiar you become with yourself, and the more material you make available to your art. You generate momentum, tap into knowledge that’s locked away in memory, and refuse to wait for divine inspiration to strike.

The technique called free-association greatly helps this process of self-discovery. Developed by Sigmund Freud, it means any activity — spoken, drawn, danced, sung — that removes the censors from self-expression and allows images, impressions or emotions to flow unhindered. Free-association is about brainstorming, imagineering, wool-gathering, and the wilder and woolier the better. The motto of free-association is “garbage is good.”

In free-associating, you learn to follow your instincts, says Naomi Newman, an actress with A Travelling Jewish Theater. She considers improvisation (any kind of impromptu composing, whether in music, movement or drama) to be excellent training for following your physical, sensory and emotional impulses. “If you feel two impulses,” she says, “go with the one that has the greatest risk for you. It will be by far the most interesting.”

Improvisation has helped foster in her the understanding that, in listening for calls, “the answers don’t ultimately come cerebrally. You may discuss a call, contemplate it, weigh the pros and cons, and vacillate, but eventually, you just know. You feel it.”

Here’s how free-association works: gather your tools—your charcoals or tape-deck, your body or voice, your fingers suspended over the keyboard—and pick a subject, any subject, or formulate a question you want to be answered. Take ten minutes and begin to write, talk, sing or dance. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t let the critic get a word in edgewise. (The critic’s proper place is after creativity, not on top of it.) Follow your imagination as it breaks into a run, dashes up hills, down hairpin turns, through tunnels and thickets and mud, and into rabbit holes—wherever it goes. If you reach a point when you say to yourself, “That’s it. There’s no more,” keep going for another five minutes. Frustration is often an edge, not an ending. If you find yourself blocked, write or sing or draw a picture about being blocked.

The making of consciousness, Hillman once said, is about keeping things in conversation, and unconsciousness nothing more than letting things fall out of conversation. If you were to listen to a tape-recording of an hour of therapy—the attempt at raising consciousness—what you'd hear is simply a conversation, a dialogue, ultimately, between a person and himself or herself, a pow-wow with one’s own soul.

The theologian Thomas Merton even suggested that art attunes the soul not just to itself but to God. Inasmuch as it brings us into present time and allows us a few blessed minutes or hours of self-forgetfulness, wholly absorbed and fascinated, the creative act is a version of what some call peak experiences and others call mystical experiences.

By immersing yourself in any creative activity, you bring on a sense of rapt attention, of rapture, of departure from ego, from time and place. You see into the heart of things and get a glimpse of something that was previously hidden.

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