The autobiographical story below was written as a requirement of my studies in Clinical Pastoral Education. It conveys my life path from a mythical perspective. As I shared the story I created an altar. placing objects relating to the words in bold.
"Once upon a time there lived an ordinary child. She had two parents and two younger siblings and lived in the leafy suburbs of a medium sized city. She had a deeply inquiring mind and loved to have long conversations with her friends about the meaning of life, what happens after death, and why people are the way they are. She would lie awake at night wondering “where is the end of the universe? And if there is an end, what lies beyond it? And if there’s something, then it isn’t the end!”
And so, she set out in life with the heart of a seeker, carrying a harvest basket with curiosity and willingness to learn, following the impulse of her heart.
When her family moved to the country, she loved to roam free in the bushland at the back of her house, on her two feet, and with her rambunctious pony. Being in nature was a source of solace, particularly when the other children at school picked on her. She tried to understand why they were mean and thought she must be doing something wrong.
The girl loved to read books of adventure and fantasy: young people plucked from their comfort zone to embark on a journey of great importance, meeting mentors and guides, navigating challenges and eventually growing in skills, wisdom and being in service to the world.
When she came of age, she journeyed to the big city and there met and fell in love with a charismatic and magical witch who swept her up in a world of witchcraft, magic, and psychic powers. She longed to be able to see the energy that surrounds living beings, thinking that if she could see what was happening, she would be able to help people. Sadly, the witch betrayed the young woman leaving her broken hearted, and she learned that psychic powers do not indicate wisdom. She fell into a pit of black despair.
Two kindly faery godmothers picked up the fallen young woman from the pit and into their kind embrace. They invited her to meditation where she experienced her first exquisite moments of chanting sacred mantras. And they set her on a new path, one called the Artist’s Way. This path was a sacred journey of deepening connection with God through creativity. As the young woman ventured along this path, writing three pages, stream of consciousness, every day, she began to find clarity about her next steps… to become a healer. She gathered into her harvest basket a love for chanting, and the tools of journaling and creativity as a soul path.
She embarked upon studies in the healing arts; various forms of massage and energy modalities. She found a wise and loving teacher in a healing and education centre who imparted much knowledge, including person-centred approaches to healing, meditation, and philosophy. The young woman was soon deeply immersed in the school, practicing her healing arts, learning how to be a teacher, and living at the centre. She felt her path was all laid out for her. She gathered into her harvest basket the knowledge that her hands knew how to provide healing touch, and a love for Buddhist philosophy and practice, particularly the story of Avalokiteswara.
She looked up to her teacher with adoration and gratitude, until her teacher began to confide in her about her desire to cheat on her husband with another student. The young woman supported and held her teacher in the swirling waters of her suffering through a night of deep despair and trauma. Her teacher celebrated the young woman’s skills, but she was unable to process the experience and so carried pain around her like a cloud of arrows. The teacher, once beloved but now fallen, turned her out of the healing centre, her home. Once again, the young woman fell into the pit of despair. She gathered into her harvest basket the seeds of wisdom in how to be present with people in deep pain, and also that feelings need to be expressed, lest they turn into poison arrows.
At this healing centre, the young woman had met a new soul friend. The soul friend was an amazing and powerful woman, and carried a story of incredible survivorship. She had fallen from a trapeze, shattering her whole body, ending her performance career and initiating a kundalini awakening. At the same time her mother was dying of cancer. Yet every day, she would turn up to the children’s hospital and be a clown doctor for sick kids and their families and also offer dance therapy sessions for young women with eating disorders. The young woman was entranced by her humour, connection to the mysteries, and passion for healing and was inspired to follow her in her curiosities and passions. They started attending a monthly women’s circle together and when the soul friend began to talk passionately about a new healing modality she was learning, the young woman joined her in the courses and workshops. She gathered into her harvest basket the knowledge that the human spirit is powerfully resilient.
Together they dived wholeheartedly into the healing community. The young woman stepped into service, supporting courses, and offering free meditation sessions at a local hospital where she worked with older people. She also ran the choir, finding a natural gift for facilitating music, writing songs and making cds with other community members, and performing at retreats. She learned the power of invocation, and how to purify the energy body to enable a closer connection to God and to be a clear channel for healing for others. In this community, she learned that spirituality was about transcendence; dumping the lower emotions and dross, controlling the lower impulses, and focusing on identifying with and expanding the upper chakras. She gathered into her harvest basket the understanding that she had been born with a gift of music, a way to pray, and a deeper commitment to be in service.
The young woman struggled with her work and again fell into the pit of depression, however, she found no support from her community. They were busy cleaning their chakras and trying to transcend suffering and were paranoid about catching the darkness. She realised that cleaning one’s chakras does not make one enlightened, or even kind. Into her harvest basket, she gathered the quality of discernment in regard to spiritual teachers and paths, recognising that all is not light and goodness, and that what seems to be good, may actually mask unhealthy ways of being. She was deepening her understanding that feelings are integral to human experience and cannot be ‘cleaned’ away.
One afternoon, at the hospital where she worked, she found a leaflet describing a course. She felt a cascade of shimmering energy flowing down the back of her body and knew that this was her course. In this four-year commitment, she found wonderfully wise mentors who deepened her understanding of person-centred care, while also surprising her with a wider perspective on health and wellbeing. Her mentors offered her opportunities to grow through practical experience, and she took these up with passion. She gathered into her harvest basket the knowledge that she could succeed and excel when she applied her mind to a task, that she was supported by wise mentors, that health and wellbeing is multi-faceted, and healing is very different to curing.
Alongside her studies, she continued to attend the monthly women’s circle, exploring women’s mysteries, sacred feminine archetypes, embodied process, shadow, edgework and ritual. The circle was challenging and deeply nourishing. The circle sisters supported each other in their healing and wholing journeys, working through their birth, menarche, relationship and trauma experiences. She developed an intimate relationship with her menstruation, coming to know the highs and lows of her particularly strong cycle. She also came to see that sometimes being pushed, even with loving intention, caused her to freeze, shut down and retreat. When the young woman approached her honours year, she had a dream about her thesis topic. She was very scared to take up the topic, but her circle empowered her with support and so she embarked upon that challenging path. She gathered into her harvest basket an experience of deep support and encouragement, and also came to understand the power of her monthly cycle of bleeding.
Some years passed. The young woman travelled, experiencing expanded states of consciousness on meditation retreats, and meeting enormous physical challenges trekking in the Himalayas. She made art, continuing to journal regularly, writing songs, poetry, drawing, painting, and sculpting. Every month she made a descent into the shadows with her bleeding, and came to understand that solitude and art making were supportive in these difficult times. She gathered the gifts of resilience, courage and connection with divine love, into her harvest basket.
She returned to her home city and began project work and leading people in singing. Her soul friend returned early from a holiday with her husband and 2 year-old child, with news of stage four ovarian cancer. In circle, the sisters offered ritual, healing, and emotional support. Her soul friend journeyed deeply and in ritual, gave herself a new name. She celebrated a remission, but the cancer later returned, and after just months, she died at sunrise one day as the kookaburras began their song. The young woman again fell into a dark night, grief and depression claiming her. She gathered into her harvest basket the experience of grief.
Over time, the woman found herself in a new community… one of dancers, shadow and edge walkers, healers, activists and artists. They gathered on the dancefloor every week to dance five rhythms, to reconnect with themselves and each other, to dance the feelings of the week, receive insight and new perspectives, to be reborn. This was a deeply embodied community, which valued feelings and expression and the whole experience of being human. The young woman deepened the path begun years before in the Artist’s Way, studying a transpersonal approach to art therapy, diving into art processes, deep imagination, archetypes, dreamwork. She understood that consciousness can traverse many worlds, image is a doorway to soul and that creativity is a pathway through. She processed her lived experience through song-writing, journaling, visual art, clay-work, dreamwork. She worked with a skilled healer to unravel old traumas still held in her body and learned the ways of the nervous system, finally understanding all the times she had frozen or dissociated in the past. She undertook a solo journey into the desert and fasted for three days, meeting her fear and declaring her forgiveness. She gathered into her harvest basket ways to move with feelings, to soothe herself, to speak to herself with love and compassion.
But still, she found herself once again in a period of darkness. One afternoon, she stood upon a bridge, longing to jump into the brown waters below. She did not jump, but carried the story to a wise guide who sat alongside her and held space for her to follow herself, to let herself, in her inner world, jump from the bridge and to rest on the bottom of the river. In that moment, she finally befriended the depths into which she’d fallen so many times, welcoming it, feeling it, allowing it. This simple and profound experience met a deep need and profoundly shifted the pattern of depression that had arisen over and over in her life. The power of presence. The power of not changing anything. The woman recognised this turning point and its magic. She placed this into her harvest basket with profound gratitude.
She continued her studies in art therapy, meeting intellectual and emotional challenges and again found her resilience. She learned the power of description – that ‘noticing’ is a doorway to the present moment and an invitation, each moment opening to new worlds of exploration. She committed to a practice of making a new mandala every day for a year, turning up to the blank page again and again to see what would emerge. The woman met a new teacher and with his guidance travelled through wild bush landscapes, meeting parts of herself in ritual and developing new relationships with those parts. She gathered into her harvest basket a deeper trust in the unfolding process of life, a deeper valuing of emergence, a capacity to stay with what is, and the message that risk brings rich reward.
As she neared her 42nd year, she felt that her time of gathering experiences into her harvest basket through formal education was coming to an end. The woman continued to meet life with increasing courage, stepping out of her comfort zone and engaging in initiatory work to heal, transform and grow. She felt a deeper commitment to exploring relationship, seeking to shift old patterns and explore new possibilities. She found a more present and clear voice and showed up in the world with a greater sense of worthiness. She continued to carry the gifts of prayer, creative practice, and being with her feelings, and the values of service, integrity and connection. It was time to offer these gifts fully in service.
And so, she found herself in a place of healing, journeying alongside three others with the guidance of two skilled guides, bringing the contents of her harvest basket to share with those she met along the way.
And she wondered… this wild and messy and beautiful and painful life had already brought so many gifts of growth. She had been deeply blessed with opportunities, mentorship and wise counsel. She had traversed a path of transcendence, and a path of deep embodiment in the thick of raw humanity. She wondered what the next phase might bring… And she wondered about legacy, and about what she might offer back to life from the richness of her harvest basket, and how she might continue to nourish herself from it.
Seeing a therapist can be vulnerable. We bring our awareness to the most sensitive places within us. We are witnessed in our fragile, powerful, beautiful, messy humanity. And, if our therapist is attentive, attuned and supportive, we experience acceptance in all of that. We find new ways to relate with ourselves, new ways of being.
A couple of days ago I was preparing for a presentation on art therapy for university students. I came across a piece I had written following an art therapy session about five years ago when I was really struggling with severe PMDD symptoms. I wondered whether to include it in the presentation, but decided it wasn't appropriate for that context. I share it here as a window into art therapy for those who are unfamiliar.
"Tonight in art therapy, I cry tears of frustration and anger as I talk about my struggles. I am premenstrual, incredibly sensitive in the world, and the inner critic is running rampant. I notice that my hands are pressing and forming the tissue that I’m holding. My arts therapist asks if I want to move into creating an artwork, and I reply, “I am already”.
I go to the cupboard and select a range of materials: silver shiny strips of paper, white silky material, bubble wrap, blue frayed material, needle and thread, two pairs of scissors. I wrap the ball of tissue, covering it with the white silk, add strands of silver and blue. I hold it all together with a rubber band while I sew. I make eyes of little fluffy balls.
I hold the form aloft by a little leftover thread, allowing the tendrils to trail, looking at it. I notice my mind is searching for some meaning to make of it and ask aloud, “Why would I make a jellyfish?”
I suddenly have the image of a brain, spine and nervous system… and this jelly fish shape makes sense to me… Raw nerves in the world... Vulnerable.
I reflect on my recent learning about the nervous system, and the tools I have learned to support my system to regulate. I can see how perfectly my jellyfish is a mirror, the rawness of my state when I'm premenstrual. It is easy to see why I long for solitude and quiet when I'm so raw. My nerves are exposed.
My arts therapist asks how I might comfort these raw nerves. I tell her some of the ways that I self-soothe: Being aware of pleasant things in my environment. Feeling comfort in my body. Simply feeling my connection to the chair or the earth. Going for a walk in nature. Making art.
As the session is drawing to a close, I wonder how to transport this artwork home. I don’t want to mess up the tendrils or crush them. I want to put it cotton wool somehow. I find some fluffy material, peeling it back to make a bed and doona. I am able to lay out the tendrils and not crush them. I giggle to see the jellyfish so snug in its bed. In the end, I wrap it up in the white silk, creating a beautiful protective doona cover to get it home safely.
My arts therapist says, "how precious it is". And she reflects that it is the antithesis to the critic that I live with, especially at premenstrual time.
It's home now, and tucked in safe in my bookshelf. I want to take care of it, this little raw being. I want to keep it safe when it's feeling exposed and vulnerable. I want to cultivate the comfort of lying in a cloud-bed. I want to do this for myself. I am grateful."
Chelle is a practicing art therapist, researcher, and multi-modal creative. She regularly dives into the unknown to discover what is ready to be born, deepening her trust in the abundantly creative source. For Chelle, art is a means to inquire, express, and transform. If offers the capacity to soothe, making space for new perspectives and ways of being.