Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD – Travels into the Subconscious: Using Art to Create Clarity and Restore Well-being

One of my standard practices with clients is to help them make meaning from what’s happening in their lives using visual form.

I may take a client to Tate Modern in London or another gallery where we explore their jumbled thoughts through the prism of creative expression other people generated because they had something to say that could only be expressed, not in books or speeches, but through art. I invite the client to take me on a journey guided by their subconscious mind. This approach is based on a hypothesis that understanding or developing a key insight into something that the client can’t grasp can be achieved not by talking it through but by experiencing the reflection of subconscious thoughts that can then create conscious meaning and insight within the client’s mind. The process is completely unpredictable but always highly informative. When we dive underneath the barriers of what clients can language, using a far richer world of art we often create significant meaning. Recently, feeling the need to get clarity myself, I invited a friend along to do just that! Only this time, it was I that would work with my neurology to help me uncover something I could not articulate.

Chrissy Angliker, "Sunset Self Portrait"
Chrissy Angliker, “Sunset Self Portrait”

I am generally fascinated by the power and complexity of the human mind having studied how it builds itself and functions. As a coach and therapist I am interested in exploring tools and approaches that help clients tap into their subconscious where many unresolved conflicts reside.  Helping a client work through them via the power of their conscious mind is both effective and deeply healing. My hypothesis is that before clients can move forward in a healthy way, they need to align their heart and mind. By heart I don’t mean the muscle pumping blood around our bodies but the deeper parts of our subconsciousness; our intuitive intelligence which guides us, protects us and helps us heal if we listen to it. Being able to combine this deep wisdom with our cognitive, logical mind, in my view, allows for healthy and incredibly powerful expression of the human spirit that resides in each of us.

Given the busy lives we all lead, the mind tries best to cope with life by solving conflicts through shortcuts and ‘plasters’. This superficial wall papering over cracks where integration has not occurred is a necessary way for the mind to keep up as it pays attention to the information. But underneath this, a wider intelligence of our subconscious continuously integrates our thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences in order to ensure our well-being. Much of this happens when we sleep of course. An imbalance in this process whether through repression of thoughts or impediments to such integration though lack of reflection, self-awareness or sufficient rest leads to suffering, inner conflict and difficulties for us all.

As a logic-driven scientist I had to embrace this way of working and thinking. I had to learn to trust my intuition as much as my logic. It’s a journey I am still on. Working with clients over the last few years and creating and experimenting with tools that help them excel, develop and heal, I’ve come to believe that what we make of, work with and create by talking is just a prism through which we see a specific perspective on the client. However, we only need a tiny fraction of their true spirit in order to grasp and help them.

Our cognitive minds are driven to create meaning and narratives that, while imperfect, satisfies us at least on a superficial level.

But in order to tap into the power and wisdom of our neurology which is more than just the brain in our skulls, we need to help clients develop deeper integration between what they think and feel and what’s driving these energies from within and outside. When this level of understanding and consciousness is developed, clients make more elegant choices that support the expression of their deepest soul and generate deep satisfaction and happiness. On a practical level, the overwhelming and repressive trifles of daily life dissolve opening up a vast expanse of calmness and quiet, awake presence. The individual experiences deeper grounding and a state of being alive instead of simply existing.

So as my friend and I entered the gallery I parked my jumble of thoughts that had been rummaging through the corridors of my mind (which I couldn’t make much sense of anyhow) and allowed my neurology to help me grasp what my subconscious mind knew but which was inaccessible to me.

In the process I will now describe—everything from where one starts, goes, and what one sees or indeed overlooks—is guided by a deeper wisdom that the conscious mind is invited to listen to and follow without judgment. What’s in the driver’s seat, therefore, is no longer the logical mind telling me where to go and what to see. Instead, I become a curious observer who is simply present and open to what my subconscious will reveal.

My feet begin to travel and we proceed to a specific floor of the gallery where my subconscious wants to take us. In a roomful of six works of art, I am drawn to Gerhard Richter’s Panes of Glass. The artwork invites me to look through the stocks of glass as well as explore different perspectives as I look at my reflection constantly changing depending where I look within the stack. Through my experience of the work, my mind is left with the word ‘complexity’ and a notion of the need and benefit of ‘taking time to understand’. Before I consider the wisdom of these words, my feet move me onwards. Nonetheless, I am now left feeling calmer and content. There is a restful feeling within me in connection with having to face things that are not as simple as they may look at first glance–just like those panes of glass. The message seems reassuring and permission-giving. I don’t make meaning of it. That’s not the point just yet.

We move on and I’m curious what’s to come. My next destination turned out to be Cy Twombly’s Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos series made up of three large canvases depicting whirling, blood-red circular brushstrokes. I’m struck by the vividness of one of the canvases that attracts me the most. As I come closer to consider the work, the words that come up to my consciousness are ‘confusion’ and ‘turmoil’ that are, nonetheless, contained and beautiful. I am left with a sense of massive appreciation for what fundamentally looks like a giant mess some would question deserves to be called art. We walk on and pass a number of gallery rooms. Nothing calls to me in the same way and yet I have a distinct feeling I am not finished with this experience.

Soon enough, we come across Mario Merz’s Lingotto, an installation made up of a series of brushwood, beeswax and steel. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition of vulnerability of the brushwood and the solidity of the steel box. The stick wood almost begs us to be set on fire. A memory flashes across my conscious mind of a bonfire I attended a couple of years ago in the English countryside. The sentiment I had for the place back then was similar to the steel box: strong and balanced. The thought comes from my conscious mind and quickly dissolves. My encounter with the Longotto leaves me with a deeper notion of balance between the fragility of my health and my surprising resilience that doesn’t let me give up, which supports me through times of difficulty. And again, my psyche drops into a calmer and serene space as I experience order and balance within this work reflecting larger order and balance of the world I am in and indeed my world.

We walk on and pass a number of paintings and sculptures until we come upon Magda Cordell’s Figure (Woman) oil painting on hardboard. It’s unmistakably feminine. Swirls of colorful lines create a picture of a naked, three-dimensional woman. The figure is missing legs and arms as well as her head yet she looks alive and vibrant. I can’t help but be attracted to the work. However I focus on her form, it is impossible to view her fully. I can either see her large breasts or her thighs or her arms but the perspectives don’t exactly match up to create a seamless image until I step further away from the work. The word that comes up for me as I view this piece is ‘strength’. And now I feel a sense of completion. I know and feel that I am done! The process is done and my subconscious has revealed to me all that I need from this visit.

On the journey home clarity emerges. I have come on this visit in a state of inner unrest with a jumble of thoughts about my work, life, my model and a myriad of other thoughts wanting to decipher meaning or answer a question I couldn’t even articulate. Now I know that question involves my work as a coach-therapist and what makes it effective for my clients. I have and continue to work on an approach to connect heart and mind-thinking but apart from a mechanistic tool or framework; I am deeply aware of some larger principles within this way of working which I could not name but which I am now called to teach to other practitioners. It all seems a mess except for the wonderful results I can see we can make using the Get Productive Wheel. I can’t claim that my visit had given me all the answers I needed but it has brought me into a new plane of conscious awareness about some of the key elements contained within this approach. The art helped me bridge my subconscious and conscious thought so that I can now articulate what I bring my clients with this approach. Oddly, they feel in the right order as well.

– Ability to follow and explore specific perspectives yet not get seduced by them.

– Capacity for working with what may feel messy, bloody or shocking at first sight and to be able to help clients transform it into a work of art.

– Skill to create a balanced composition by strengthening weak spots and uncovering blind spots in existing strengths.

– Systemic approach that can focus and appreciate the inter-relatedness of the parts to the whole spirit of the person I can only begin to see when I step back enough to observe them and acknowledge their perfect imperfections.

So, my invitation to you is to take yourself on a similar exploration in a gallery of your choice. Equally, you may wish to explore the rich and beautiful art within the pages of Psychology Tomorrow. Allow your neurology to reveal to you what you need to understand, clarify or learn. If you like, share your experience with us on this blog. I look forward to reading about it.

Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhDGet Productive!

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